“Also known as the
mechanical Turk or automaton Chess player”
The life and times of the
famous eighteenth-century Chess playing machine, by Tom Standage
Automation (from aytoz, -self, and mav, to seize): a self-moving machine, or one in which the principle of motion is contained within the mechanism itself. According to this description, clocks, watches and all machines of a similar kind are automata, but the word is generally applied to contrivances, which simulate for a time the motions of animal life. -Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition (1911).
On an autumn day in 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen, a thirty-five-year-old Hungarian civil servant, was summoned to the imperial court in Vienna by Maria Theresa,
Empress of Austria-Hungary, to witness the performance of a visiting French conjuror. Kempelen was well versed in physics, mechanics, and hydraulics, and was a trusted servant of the empress. She had invited him on a whim because she wanted to see what an expert in scientific matters would make of the conjurors tricks. Yet the performance was to change the course of Kempelen's life. It set in motion a chain of events that led him to construct an extraordinary machine: a mechanical man, dressed in an oriental costume, seated behind a wooden cabinet, and capable of playing Chess.
At the time, elaborate mechanical toys were a popular form of entertainment in the courts of Europe, though the technology they embodied was soon to be put to more serious uses. So Kempelen intended his Chess-playing machine to do little more than amuse the court and advance his career by impressing the empress. But instead his automaton unexpectedly went on to achieve widespread fame throughout Europe and America, bringing Kempelen both triumph and despair.
During its eighty-five-year career the automaton was associated with a host of historical figures, including Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe. It was the subject of numerous stories and anecdotes and inspired many legends and outright fabrications, the truth of many of which will never be known. The Chess player was, in fact, destined to become the most famous automaton in history.
And along the way, Kempelen's work would unwittingly help to inspire the development of the power loom, the telephone, the computer, and the detective story.
To modern eyes, in an era when it takes a supercomputer to defeat the world Chess champion, it seems obvious that Kempelen's Chess-playing machine had to have been a hoax-not a true automaton at all but a contraption acting under the surreptitious control of a human operator, like a puppet dancing on a string. How, after all, would it have been possible to build a genuine Chess-playing machine using eighteenth-century clockwork and mechanical technology? But during the eighteenth century automata of extraordinary ingenuity were being constructed and exhibited across Europe, including Jacques de Vaucanson's mechanical duck, Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz's harpsichord player, and John Joseph Merlin's dancing lady.
Mechanical devices seemed to offer limitless new technological possibilities.
So the notion that Kempelen's machine really could play Chess did not seem totally out of the question. Even among the skeptics who insisted it was a trick, there was disagreement about how the automaton worked, leading to a series of claims and counterclaims. Did it rely on mechanical trickery, magnetism, or sleight of hand? Was there a dwarf, or a small child, or a legless man hidden inside it? Was it controlled by a remote operator in another room or concealed under the floor? None of the many explanations put forward over the years succeeded in fully fathoming Kempelen's secret and served only to undermine each other.
Indeed, it is only recently, following the construction of a replica of the automaton, that the full secret of its operation has been uncovered. By choosing to make his machine a Chess player, a contraption apparently capable of reason, Kempelen sparked a vigorous debate about the extent to which machines could emulate or replicate human faculties.
The machine's debut coincided with the beginnings of the industrial revolution, when machines first began to displace human workers, and the relationship between people and machines was being redefined. The Chess player posed a challenge to anyone who took refuge in the idea that machines might be able to outperform humans physically but could not outdo them mentally.
The reactions it inspired thus foreshadowed modern reactions to the computer, over 200 years later. And the automaton's curious tale, running in a parallel course alongside the prehistory of computing but connecting in a few key places, has now assumed a new significance as scientists and philosophers continue to debate the possibility of machine intelligence. Kempelen never gave his automaton a name, but its distinctive oriental costume gave rise to a nickname almost immediately, and it is known to this day as the Turk. This is the story of its remarkable and checkered career.
Reprinted by permission of Walker & Company from their edition of "The Turk" published April 2002.
Q & A with Tom Standage, author of The Turk:
"The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine."
Q: When did you first hear about the Turk?
I can't remember exactly, but it was probably when I was a teenager, and I first got interested in artificial intelligence. I had a book called The Policeman's Beard is Half-Constructed, which contained poems and prose written by a computer program called Racter.
I spent several months working on my own software to do the same sorts of things: hold conversations, construct sentences, write poems, and so on. I also wrote programs that could make logical deductions based on simple statements and generate horoscopes. I read around the subject of machine intelligence generally, and it was probably then that I first came across the Turk.
Q: What was it about the Turk's story that particularly interested you?
What appealed to me was the way in which this automaton prompted a debate, in the late 18th century, about whether a machine could think or not. I loved the idea that people were debating the possibility of thinking machines over 150 years before the first digital computers were built.
We like to think that the "artificial intelligence" debate is a modern phenomenon, but it's not. I'm rather fond of collecting examples of this kind of thing-historical precursors of modern scientific and technological breakthroughs. My first book, The Victorian Internet, looked at the parallels between the telegraph networks of the 19th century and the modern Internet.
My second book, The Neptune File, was about how the planet Neptune was detected in 1845 by mathematical analysis of its effects on other bodies-which is how astronomers are now detecting planets around other stars.
Q: The Turk is a detective story as well as a book about the history of technology. How did you piece together the Turk's somewhat mysterious history?
The biggest problem was distinguishing fact from fiction. There are lots of myths and legends surrounding the Turk, many of which are routinely reported as fact. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica from 1911, my favorite snapshot of the Victorian worldview, has a completely erroneous explanation of its secret based on a story put about by the magician Robert-Houdin in the 19th century.
Wolfgang von Kempelen, the Turk's creator, is almost universally referred to as a baron, but he wasn't one. This kind of thing happens repeatedly, so I had to go back to the original reports and work through them in chronological order to see what could be trusted. It was then possible to see mistakes and fabrications propagate from one account to another.
I went back to old journals and sources in English, French, and German, and communicated with a researcher in Budapest, who translated excerpts from Hungarian sources into German for me.
I also visited the Library Company of Philadelphia, which has a huge archive of Turk-related material.
And I talked to the members of what I call the "Turk mafia"-a group of magicians, Chess experts and academics, most of whom communicate with each other, and all of whom are passionately interested in the Turk and its story. I've even ended up bidding against members of the Turk mafia when Turk-related items come up for sale on eBay.
Q: Why were so many people prepared to believe that the Turk was genuine?
There seem to have been a number of reasons. The Turk's first visit to Paris, for example, coincided with the first public demonstration of a hot-air balloon by the Montgolfier brothers.
If flying machines, which were supposedly impossible, could in fact be built, then why not a thinking machine?
Mechanical technology was advancing quickly, the industrial revolution was getting started, and displays of mechanical toys of amazing complexity were very popular.
The way in which the Turk was presented made a big difference too. John Gaughan, a Los Angeles magician, has reconstructed the Turk.
And when you see it playing, even if you know the secret, it's really convincing. It seems to tap into a really fundamental human compulsion to believe that it's real.
Q: Do you believe a "thinking machine" will be possible any time soon?
It all depends how you define "thinking". I go along with Alan Turing, the great British mathematician, who sidestepped this philosophical question with his "Turing test": he defined a thinking machine as one that can convince someone that it is a human in a written question-and-answer session.
In other words, for practical purposes, a machine that appears to be intelligent-that can answer questions, or drive a car in response to spoken directions, or whatever-is as good as a machine that is "really" intelligent.
The philosophers can go off and argue about whether or not it's really thinking, or has a mind, or whatever, but from an engineering point of view it's what the machine can do that counts. I expect we'll see machines like this in the next few years: speech-driven PCs, personal assistants, that sort of thing. They will appear to be thinking. Will they be HAL-like artificial minds? No. But they'll still be useful.
About the Author:
Tom Standage was born in London and studied engineering and computer theory at Oxford University. Since graduating, he has covered science and technology for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, The Independent, Wired, FEED, and Prospect.
Former Deputy Editor of the Daily Telegraph's technology section, he is now Technology Correspondent for The Economist.
His first two books, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers (Walker & Company, 1998) and The Neptune File: A Story of Astronomical Rivalry and the Pioneers of Planet Hunting (Walker & Company, 2000), were published on both sides of the Atlantic.
The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine (Walker & Company, 2002) was published as The Mechanical Turk: The True Story of the Chess-Playing Machine that Fooled the World by Penguin in the UK in April 2002.
Tom Standage lives in Greenwich, England, with his wife and daughter.