The Turk: The Life and times of the Famous Eightenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine

The Turk: The Life and times of the Famous Eightenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine

by Tom Standage
Created by a Hungarian nobleman and presented at court to Empress Maria Theresa, the Turk was a mechanical man, fashioned from wood, powered by clockwork, dressed in stylish costume -- and capable of playing chess. Over the next eighty-five years, the Turk would travel throughout Europe and America, baffling, angering, inspiring, and intimidating challengers and


Created by a Hungarian nobleman and presented at court to Empress Maria Theresa, the Turk was a mechanical man, fashioned from wood, powered by clockwork, dressed in stylish costume -- and capable of playing chess. Over the next eighty-five years, the Turk would travel throughout Europe and America, baffling, angering, inspiring, and intimidating challengers and audiences including such figures as Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe. Here, the story of the Turk, his colorful career, and his influence on the modern world -- and on our evolving view of ourselves in relation to machines -- is told by an author who "keeps us on the edge our seats" in what the Chicago Tribune calls, simply, "a gem of a book."

Product Details

The Penguin Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 7.46(h) x 0.73(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Turk

The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine
By Tom Standage

Berkley Publishing Group

Copyright © 2003 Tom Standage
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0425190390

Chapter One

The Queen's
Gambit Accepted

THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT (D4 D5 C4): An opening in which White attempts to sacrifice his queen's bishop's pawn to accelerate the development of his position. Black accepts the gambit by taking the offered pawn.

You seek for knowledge and wisdom as I once did; and I ardently hope that the gratification of your wishes may not be a serpent to sting you, as mine has been.

--Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

* * *

Automata are the forgotten ancestors of almost all modern technology. From computers to compact-disc players, railway engines to robots, the origins of today's machines can be traced back to the elaborate mechanical toys that flourished in the eighteenth century. As the first complex machines produced by man, automata represented a proving ground for technology that would later be harnessed in the industrial revolution. But their original uses were rather less utilitarian. Automata were the playthings of royalty, both as a form of entertainment in palaces and courts across Europe and as gifts sent from one ruling family to another. As well as being a source of amusement, automata provided a showcase for each nation's scientific prowess, since they embodied what was, at the time, the absolute cutting edge of new technology. As a result, automata had a far greater social and cultural importance than their outward appearance as mere toys might suggest.

The first automata were essentially scaled-down versions of the elaborate mechanical clocks that adorned cathedrals across Europe from medieval times. As well as displaying the time, these clocks often had astronomical features (such as the phase of the moon) and, in some cases, entire mechanical theaters that sprang to life on particular occasions. A typical configuration involved figures of the Madonna and Child, who would appear through a doorway on specific feast days as the clock struck the hour. They would be followed by figures representing the three kings, shepherds, and so on, all of whom would genuflect before the Madonna, present their gifts, and then disappear through another door. A good example can still be seen today on the clock tower of St. Mark's in Venice. Municipal clocks in town squares subsequently adapted this formula but replaced the religious figures with kings, knights, trumpeters, birds, and other animals. These clocks provided the inspiration for smaller and increasingly elaborate automata that clockmakers sold to rich customers. As these devices became more complicated, their time-keeping function became less important, and automata became first and foremost mechanical amusements in the form of mechanical theaters or moving scenes.

One popular kind of automaton was the mechanical picture, a painting with moving parts driven by an elaborate clockwork mechanism hidden behind or within the frame. Another type of automaton, also intended as a conversation piece, took the form of a table ornament. Such devices could hold cutlery, napkins, and spices, had spouts to dispense wine or water, were decorated with moving figures or animals, and often incorporated a clock. A particularly fine example, made for Emperor Rudolph II by Hans Schlottheim, a German automaton maker, can be seen today in the British Museum.

Another influence on the design of automata was the long tradition of imitating nature through the construction of mechanical animals. The Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci, for example, designed a flying machine modeled on a bird and is said to have made a mechanical lion. His fifteenth-century German contemporary, Johann Müller, known as "Regiomontanus," presented Emperor Maximilian with an iron fly and a mechanical eagle, which is reputed to have escorted the emperor to the city gates of Nuremberg, though exactly how is unclear. Even less plausible is the brass fly constructed by Bishop Virgilius of Naples. It supposedly chased all the real flies from the city, which remained free of flies for eight years.

Inspired by such tales, makers of automata enjoyed the challenge of making machines that were capable of moving in a lifelike manner. There were music boxes and snuffboxes out of which singing birds or dancing figures appeared, and innumerable mechanical animals. One eighteenth-century automaton-maker, an Englishman named James Cox, made an eight-foot-high mechanical elephant encrusted with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and pearls. Cox was renowned for his automata and mechanical clocks, many of which were sold or sent as gifts to China by the East India Company. His other creations included a mechanical tiger, a peacock, and a swan.

Sometimes automata imitated living things a little too credibly, as was the case with a supposed automaton harpsichord player that made an appearance at the court of the French king Louis XV during the 1730s and enchanted listeners with its musical ability. The king insisted on being shown the mechanism that could play in such a charming and lifelike manner, whereupon a five-year-old girl was found concealed inside the machine.

Other famous (but genuine) automata included the writer, draftsman, and harpsichord player constructed by Henri-Louis Jaquet-Droz, a member of a Swiss family of clockmakers. The movements of these automata, which could write, draw, and play music respectively, were programmed using irregularly shaped disks, called cams, threaded onto a spindle. As the spindle rotated, spring-loaded levers resting on the cams moved up and down, and controlled the motion of the automaton's various parts by pushing and pulling on connecting rods. By paying meticulous attention to the shapes of the various cams, one could program an automaton to make coordinated, lifelike movements of extraordinary grace and subtlety. Similar writing automata were built in the 1750s for Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungary, by Friedrich von Knauss, an Austrian inventor who is also credited with the invention of the typewriter.

Since only the very rich could afford to buy their extravagant contraptions, makers of automata moved in elevated circles and often ended up in the direct employ of kings, queens, and emperors. Building automata thus provided a good way for serious-minded clockmakers, engineers, or scientists seeking patronage to demonstrate their abilities and establish reputations for themselves; tinkering with mechanical toys could lead to both fame and fortune. Perhaps the best example is provided by the Frenchman Jacques de Vaucanson, whose inventions dazzled Europe in the mid-eighteenth century, and whose renown as an automaton maker enabled him to move effortlessly between the worlds of entertainment, industry, and science.

Vaucanson was born in 1709, the youngest of ten children, and studied theology at the Jesuit college in Grenoble with a view to becoming a monk. He also enjoyed building mechanical toys, and he soon found that this was incompatible with his religious vocation. According to one story, he built tiny flying toys in the form of angels, which angered his superiors; another tale suggests that it was a table automaton that got Vaucanson into trouble with a senior official of his religious order. In any case, forced to choose between his religious calling and his enthusiasm for elaborate machinery, he renounced the religious life and decided instead to devote himself to building automata.

Like other automaton makers, Vaucanson was particularly interested in building machines capable of imitating the natural processes of living beings, including respiration, digestion, and the circulation of the blood. His ultimate goal was to build an artificial man. But Vaucanson soon realized that in order to pursue this goal, he would first have to put his talents to commercial use and raise money "by producing some machines that could excite public curiosity." Displays of automata were becoming increasingly popular, particularly in Paris and London, where they provided an opportunity for the public to witness a variety of elaborate machinery that they would never have been able to afford to buy for themselves.

The automaton that first brought Vaucanson to public attention took the form of a flute player. One day in 1735, while walking through some public gardens in Paris, he saw a statue of a boy holding a flute to his lips and was inspired to build a moving statue that could actually play melodies. The primary purpose of the automaton was to enable Vaucanson to investigate the human respiratory system, and to this end he furnished it with artificial lungs, windpipe, and mouth, to which it held its flute. The lungs consisted of three sets of bellows, driven by a rotating crankshaft, to ensure a constant flow of air at low, medium, and high pressure. A set of valves adjusted the amount of air at each pressure that was allowed into the windpipe, and another valve in the mouth regulated the airflow, performing the function of the tongue. The movements of these valves, together with those of the fingers and the lips, were controlled by a set of spring-loaded levers whose ends rested on the surface of a rotating drum. The surface of the drum was covered with small studs; as the ends of the levers passed over these studs, they rose and fell, causing the automaton to move its fingers and lips accordingly. This meant that every aspect of the automaton's complex operation could be programmed in advance by inserting a suitable configuration of studs into the surface of the drum. The automaton could thus be made to play intricate melodies and mimic almost all of the subtleties of a human flute player's breathing and musical expression.

Vaucanson put his flute player on public display in Paris in October 1737, and it was an immediate success. Mindful of the false automaton that had deceived the court of Louis XV, Vaucanson subsequently allowed his flute player to be scrutinized by members of the Academy of Sciences in Paris, one the world's leading scientific societies, to dispel any question of trickery. One account of the event written by Juvigny, a French politician, recorded that "at first many people would not believe that the sounds were produced by the flute which the automaton was holding. These people believed that the sounds must come from an organ enclosed in the body of the figure. The most incredulous, however, were soon convinced that the automaton was in fact blowing the flute, and that the breath coming from his lips made it play and that the movement of his fingers determined the different notes. The machine was submitted to the most minute examination and to the strictest tests. The spectators were permitted to see even the innermost springs and to follow their movements." Vaucanson's flute player was thus proven to be an entirely genuine automaton. What the false automaton had accomplished through trickery, Vaucanson had achieved through a combination of ingenuity and the latest in mechanical technology.

Within a few months he had completed a second automaton, this time of a boy playing a pipe with one hand and a drum with the other. With only one hand to play the three-holed pipe, the sound it produced was far more dependent on the air pressure, the tonguing, and the position of the automaton's fingers. It thus presented a further challenge to Vaucanson's ability to mimic human subtleties. But it was Vaucanson's third automaton, a model of the digestive system, that was to become his most famous creation. Instead of building it in the form of a person, Vaucanson decided to imitate an animal and built a mechanical duck.

He described this automaton in a letter to a contemporary as "an artificial duck made of gilded copper that drinks, eats, quacks, splashes about on the water, and digests his food like a living duck." The duck could stretch out its neck, take grain from a spectator's hand, and then swallow, digest, and excrete it. The duck's wings were anatomically exact copies of real wings, with each bone rendered in metal and adorned with a few feathers. The duck could even flap its wings and create a gentle breeze. But while spectators were chiefly struck by the extraordinarily lifelike nature of the duck, Vaucanson was chiefly interested in its innards, which he left exposed to view. The duck's insides imitated the digestive process by dissolving the grain in an artificial stomach, from where it was passed along tubes and excreted. In the process of building this automaton, Vaucanson pioneered the development of flexible rubber tubing.

In common with Vaucanson's other automata, the duck was mounted on a wooden pedestal, and its mechanism was powered by a falling weight, in the same way as a grandfather clock. The weight was suspended on a cord, which was wrapped around a large drum. As the weight fell, it turned the drum, thus directing the duck's movements through an elaborate system of cams and levers. In the words of Juvigny, "During the time that this artificial animal was eating grain from someone's hand, drinking and splashing in the water brought to him in a vase, passing his excrements, flapping and spreading his wings and imitating all the movements of a living duck, everybody was allowed to look inside the pedestal. In this were all the wheels, all the levers, and all the wires communicating through the animal's legs with the different parts of his body and this was likewise open to view. As with the flute-player, a weight was the one and only source of power to set the whole thing in motion and keep it moving."

Such was the acclaim that greeted these extraordinary machines--Voltaire described their inventor as "bold Vaucanson, rival to Prometheus"--that Vaucanson allowed them to go on a tour of the courts of Europe, as ambassadors for French ingenuity and scientific advancement. Vaucanson was made a member of the Academy of Sciences in Paris; King Frederick II of Prussia offered him a job with a generous salary of 12,000 livres; he was even given the opportunity by Louis XV of France to go on an expedition to Guiana in order to further the development of his new rubber tubing.

However, Vaucanson decided to stay in France and pursue his goal of building an artificial man. Once it was completed, he hoped to use this automaton "to perform experiments on animal functions, and thence to gather inductions to know the different states of health of men so as to remedy their ills." But this ambitious project quickly stalled, so in 1741 Vaucanson accepted the offer of the lucrative government post of inspector of manufactures, with responsibility for applying his mechanical ingenuity to the modernization of the French weaving industry. He drew up elaborate plans to transform manufacturing methods and work practices. But his reorganization plans were abandoned when the silk workers of the city of Lyons, who were to try out his new ideas, heard of his scheme and complained that they would be herded into factories and forced to act as mere drudges on a production line. Wary of becoming human parts in what would be, in effect, a huge automaton, they rioted in the streets, forcing Vaucanson to disguise himself as a monk and flee for his life.

Vaucanson returned to Paris, where he decided to withdraw from the limelight. In 1743, he sold his trio of automata to a consortium of businessmen from Lyons, who showcased them at the Haymarket theater in London and subsequently displayed them across Europe. Vaucanson was appointed official examiner of new machine inventions at the Academy of Sciences in Paris and spent his remaining years working on many other inventions,...


Excerpted from The Turk by Tom Standage Copyright © 2003 by Tom Standage. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >