The Turk

On an autumn day in 1769, a Hungarian nobleman, Wolfgang von Kempelen, was summoned to witness a conjuring show at the imperial court of Maria Theresa, empress of Austria-Hungary. So unimpressed was Kempelen by what he saw that he impetuously declared that he could do better himself. Very well, said the empress, and gave him six months to deliver on his promise.The following year Kempelen unveiled an extraordinary contraption: a mechanical man seated behind a wooden cabinet. The Turk, as it became known, was fashioned from wood, powered by clockwork, and dressed in a stylish Turkish costume. Most astonishing of all, it was capable of playing chess. But how did it work? A torrent of pamphlets, books and articles followed the Turk wherever it went. Was it controlled by a dwarf, a monkey, or a legless war veteran lurking in its innards? Was it an elaborate form of puppet, or controlled by magnets? Or had Kempelen succeeded in building a thinking machine? Even eminent scientists failed to fathom the Turk’s secret. 

Kempelen’s machine was a huge success in Europe and America. The subject of numerous stories, legends and outright fabrications, the Turk became associated with a host of historical figures, including Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Babbage and Edgar Allan Poe. Along the way, this strange creation unwittingly helped to bring about the development of the power loom, the computer and the detective story.

Part historical mystery, part real-life fairy tale, the mystery of the Turk has assumed a new significance in the computer age, as scientists and philosophers continue to debate the possibility of machine intelligence. To modern eyes, the Turk now seems to have been a surprisingly far-sighted invention. This book tells the story of its remarkable and chequered career.

This book was published as “The Mechanical Turk” in the UK and “The Turk” in the US. I had a lot of fun writing it; it’s a subject I’ve been interested in for many years. There have been books about the Turk before, but they have generally been aimed at chess enthusiasts, rather than the general audience for which this book is intended. It doesn’t assume any knowledge of chess, and the complexities of the game itself are actually of little importance to the story. John Gaughan, a magician based in Los Angeles, has reconstructed the Turk, and discovered much new information about its operation in the process. I visited his workshop and was very fortunate that he agreed to share some of his findings with me. The result is, I believe, the most detailed account so far of the Turk’s extraordinary story.

“An amazing book… I raced through The Turk, even reading bits in checkout lines… Standage is a terrific writer.” — The New York Times Book Review

“Opens a fascinating window onto the emerging culture of technophilia… The Turk is a gem of a book.” — The Chicago Tribune

“Gripping… Standage spins out the mystery like a thriller-writer, building the tension and teasing us with red herrings… a rattling good yarn told by a natural entertainer.” — The Daily Mail

“Standage’s work as a technology reporter has molded him into a marvelous writer of swift and succinct narratives. Like the author’s previous books, The Turk is a case study in how to write a popular history — for while the machine’s story is fascinating, Standage also embarks on a series of entertaining historical tangents.” — The Portland Oregonian

“Marvelous” — The Wall Street Journal

“Delightful” — The London Review of Books

“Lively and thoroughly researched” — The New York Review of Books

“A fascinating narrative characterized by rivalry, deception and adventurous travels… Standage is a vivid and straightforward writer who demonstrates a casual mastery of his chosen topic. He tells the Turk’s compelling story as it occurred, without revealing the mystery of the machine until the book’s last chapters.” — BookPage

“A fast-paced, entertaining techno-history… reads like a slightly insane travelogue, populated by carnies, charlatans, and dreamers, all seeking to cash in on the automaton craze in one way or another… a highly entertaining book” — Washington Monthly

“An absorbing historical yarn… does a superb job of presenting the story of a remarkable machine and its extraordinary creator as they surfed the rising tide of technology, leaving controversy (and bruised egos) in their wake.” — Christian Science Monitor

“It is generous on facts… Standage reveals precisely how the Turk functioned. His is an enjoyable and decorative little book, with illustrations and clear diagrams of how the trick worked.” — Brian Aldiss, Times Literary Supplement

“Standage, who is also the author of the delightful Victorian Internet… keeps us on the edge of our seats, wondering about the secret to this magical device. History as seen from an unusual angle: thrilling stuff.” — Booklist, starred review

“This is fascination, obsession, inquiry, storytelling and literary magic at its very best.” — Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman

“Another good one from the author of the excellent The Victorian Internet.” — William Gibson

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