TOM STANDAGE is technology correspondent for The Economist, and the author of The Victorian Internet and The Neptune File. Re has also written for Wired, Prospect, the Guardian, and the Daily Telegraph. He lives in Greenwich, England, with his wife and daughter.
On an autumn day in 1769, a Hungarian nobleman named Wolfgang von Kempelen attended a conjuring show at the court of Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungary. So unimpressed was Kempelen by the performance that he declared he could do better himself. Maria Theresa held him to his word and gave him six months to prepare a show of his own. Kempelen did not disappoint; he returned to the court the following spring with a mechanical man, fashioned from wood, powered by clockwork, dressed in a stylish Turkish costume—and capable of playing chess.The Turk, as this contraption became known, was an instant success and enjoyed an illustrious career in Europe and America during the next eighty-five years. Associated over time with a host of historical figures, including Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe, Kempelen’s creation also unwittingly helped to inspire the development of the power loom, the computer, and the detective story. Everywhere it went; the Turk baffled spectators and provoked frenzied speculation about whether a machine could really think. Many rival theories were published serving only to undermine each other, and the Turk’s secret was only ever revealed to a select few.Part historical detective story, part real-life fairy tale, The Turk chronicles the machine’s remarkable and checkered career against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, as mechanical technology opened up dramatic new possibilities and the relationship between people and machines was being redefined. Today, in the midst of the computer age, that relationship has assumed a new significance, as scientists and philosophers continue to debate the possibility of machine intelligence. To modern eyes, the Turk was a surprisingly farsighted invention, and its saga is a colorful and important part of the history of technology.
Publisher: WALKER & COMPANY