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ANTIQUE CHESS COMPUTER?  (14 october 2004)

One 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. Kempelen was not very much impressed by the performance and 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.


Tom Standage, technology correspondent of The Economist, wrote a brilliant book about this so-called Turk. Starting with its first appearance in 1770 until its destruction by fire in 1854, we read about a host of historical figures associated with it, including Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Babbage, and Edgar Allan Poe.

We do not learn how the Turk worked until almost the end of the book. If you don't want to know how it worked, you'd better skip the following section and stop reading here.

As many analysts – including Poe – suggested, the Turk was operated by a chessplayer who was hidden inside the cabinet.

Before the show started, the exhibitor successively opened and closed all the doors in the Turk's cabinet. While they were being opened, the operator avoided discovery by moving from one compartment to the other, comparable to the conjuring trick with the woman sawed in half.

During the chessgame, the operator had a chessboard inside the cabinet. He moved the pieces with a mechanical arm, which was connected to the arm of the Turk, so that when he moved a piece, the Turk made the same move on the chessboard above him.

At the time, many analysts concluded that the Turk must be operated by a human chessplayer because chess was so complicated that it could never be played by machines.

Little could they have guessed that in about two centuries the world champion would be defeated by a real chess machine.

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