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The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machineby Tom Standage
Synopses & Reviews
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 Tom Standages book chronicles its illustrious career in Europe and America over 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, Kempelens creation unwittingly also 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, but they served only to undermine each other.
Part historical detective story, part biography, The Turk relates the saga of the machines 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, it has assumed a new significance, as scientists and philosophers continue to debate the possibility of machine intelligence. To modern eyes, the Turk now seems to have been a surprisingly farsighted invention, and its saga is a colorful and important part of the history of technology.
"A fine description of the fascination with automata and magic that was so prevalent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries..." Library Journal
"Tom Standage writes intelligent and engaging prose?The Turk kept me reading through energy and imagination." Providence Journal
Book News Annotation:
Standage, technology correspondent for The Economist, tells the tale of an automaton comprised of a mechanical man dressed in an oriental costume seated behind a wooden cabinet and capable of playing chess. It was built in the late 18th century by Hungarian civil servant Wolfgang von Kempelen, was a hit in the courts of Europe, was associated with noted figures ranging from Napoleon to Edgar Allan Poe, and helped inspire the computer and the detective story.
Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Part historical detective story, part biography, "The Turk" relates the saga of an unusual 18th century robot--fashioned from wood to look like a man who was dressed like a Turk and played chess. 25 illustrations.
About the Author
Tom Standage is technology editor at The Economist magazine and the author of four history books, "A History of the World in Six Glasses" (2005), "The Turk" (2002), "The Neptune File" (2000) and "The Victorian Internet" (1998), two of which have been serialized as "Book of the Week" on Radio 4. "The Victorian Internet was made into a Channel 4 documentary, "How The Victorians Wired the World". Tom has previously covered science and technology for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Wired and Prospect. He holds a degree in engineering and computer science from Oxford University, and is the least musical member of a musical family. He is married and lives in Greenwich, London, with his wife and daughter.
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