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Turk [Paperback]

Tom Standage
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Aug. 5 2003 0425190390 978-0425190395 Reissue
This is the true account of the 18th-century mechanical man, powered by clockwork, dressed in a Turkish costume, and capable of playing chess. Created by a Hungarian nobleman, the machine-man known as The Turk traveled Europe and America, made the acquaintance of Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Edgar Allan Poe.

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From Library Journal

The Turk was the name given to a chess-playing automaton created by Wolfgang von Kempelen in order to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria-Hungary. In 1770, von Kempelen demonstrated the Turk and so began a series of performances that would continue for 85 years, throughout Europe and eventually in the United States. Technology correspondent for the Economist and author of The Victorian Internet, Standage details the appearance and seeming construction of the automaton, following its existence and influence up through its destruction in a fire. He also provides a fine description of the fascination with automata and magic that was so prevalent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. At the time, no one was able to determine how the Turk performed such feats; a fully operational replica was finally built by a Hollywood stage designer in 1971. Standage concludes this intriguing work by comparing the Turk with developments in computer chess playing in the latter half of the 20th century and also relates it to the broad artificial intelligence field. This book should appeal to a wide range of readers. Hilary Burton, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Livermore, CA
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* It's a shame that most people these days have never heard of Wolfgang von Kempelen's magnificent machine called the Turk, because it really was a marvelous creation. In the middle of the eighteenth century, automatons were all the rage: mechanical ducks and elephants; pictures with moving parts; even human simulacrums that could write, draw, and play musical instruments. And then there was the Turk, an automaton that could, it appeared, play chess--not just move pieces around a board, but also plan and execute strategies and outwit some of Europe's finest chess players. The Turk had a career that lasted more than eight decades: Benjamin Franklin played a match against it; Edgar Allan Poe wrote about it; Charles Babbage, the great-grandfather of the computer, was fascinated by it. But was it a genuine automaton? Or was it, as the Turk's many critics claimed, a hoax, a simple trick dressed up as a scientific wonder? Standage, who is also the author of the delightful Victorian Internet (1998), chronicles the life and times of the Turk, charting its ups and downs, showing the machine's impact on the world (the Turk was, in a way, the inspiration both for the computer and the modern detective story). Saving the best--the truth about the Turk--for last, he 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. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The "original" chess playing machine May 26 2003
Tom Standage investigates one of the 18th century's most interesting mysteries, the chess playing automaton "The Turk." Part detective story and part technological history, THE TURK combines a tale of man's fascination with the concept of "thinking machines" with the story of how the pursuit of that ideal led to the creation of one of the greatest ruses in history. By gradually (a bit too gradually) introducing the reader to the time period and the public's preoccupation with all things mechanical, Standage shows the reader a world waiting to be amazed; even if the amazement comes by way of an ingenious form of misdirection. With appearances by a number of figures who were intimately involved with The Turk's "performances to the interaction of such luminaries as Napoleon and Poe, Standage keeps the reader interested in each and every twist of The Turk's rather bizarre history. It is only when Standage takes on the philosophy of the "thinking machine" does the book make a wrong turn; it slows down the pace and interrupts the flow of what is otherwise an intriguing look this amazing example of man's ingenuity.
P.S. You will find out how it works!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Very Very Fun Aug. 22 2003
By A Customer
I might be a bit biased since my grandfather used to tell me about this automaton, but on the other hand I don't particularly like chess, so on balance I feel justified reviewing. This is a terrific book, a short, breezy read about an audacious incident that is deservedly still legendary. Really something you can't put down. On top of legitimate sounding details, Standage provides a solution that is reasonably satisfying for how this thing worked. I would have liked more detail on some of the mechanisms and on how the machine came to have an apparently rare-at-the-time solution to a classic chess puzzle ("the knight's tour"; I think I understand what Standage is getting at with this, but he never really spells it out). But with the inventor long dead and the machine consumed in a fire, these details are probably lost to history. What remains is fun and well worth reading. [Note that the "other" Turk book currently in print contains all the primary sources but costs $50. Standage uses that book as a source in producing this book, which is pitched at a more general audience. My advice: read this one and either or both of Steven Millhauser's novellas about automatons, then see if you can find somebody willing to lend you the big book.]
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4.0 out of 5 stars An unsung gem Dec 20 2002
By Steve R
Although a familiarity with chess will help, you don't need to be an enthusiast to enjoy this excellent book. Lovers of magic, mysteries, showmanship, mechanical engineering, computers, game theory, psychology, math and history will all find this a fascinating and engrossing story, as will anyone with a smattering of intellectual curiosity. Standege has created a faithful history that is also a page turner. The tale of The Turk is amazing; for its celebrated encounters with formidable intellects ranging from Napolean to Edgar Allan Poe; for its effect on the fortunes and misfortunes of its inventor and promoters; for its role as an inspirer of modern computing; and also for the sad fact that few people today have heard of the automaton that once enthralled and baffled people in dozens of countries through two centuries. Even more compelling is the book's subtext about credulity and the public's ready willingness to believe what what their eyes show them, even when their brains know that it is not possible.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing Mystery, Fascinating History Sept. 7 2002
I had never heard of the Turk before reading a short blurb elsewhere about this book, nor do I play chess, but I was intrigued enough by what I read to order it and am glad I did. A relatively short book with some occasional (in my opinion) awkward writing, it provides a fascinating look at 18th century automata in general as well as a detailed history of the Turk. What was the Turk? As the title and book jacket indicate, a famous chess playing machine designed as a Turkish man sitting at a cabinet with a chessboard on top. The Turk moved its own pieces, could roll its eyes and shake its head, and, having put its opponent in check, say "Check" (or, later, "Echec", the equivalent in French). It could even detect cheating, at which it would return the offending piece to its previous position and then continue with its own turn, forcing the cheater to lose his. Cheat again and the piece would be confiscated; cheat thrice and the Turk would shake his head and sweep all the pieces to the floor.
Although not unbeatable, the Turk won the great majority of its games and defeated some of the best players of its day. It was shown throughout Europe, made its way to the United States, and was even displayed in Cuba. During its travels it played against Napoleon Bonaparte-according to his valet, Napoleon cheated and was duly caught-and Benjamin Franklin, a rumored sore loser. Edgar Allen Poe saw The Turk play and wrote an exposé as to how he thought it worked. Its fame and indeed its life outlasted that of its creator, who rued that it overshadowed his other considerable achievements, and in all its 85 years of existence its secret remained just that. Was it really a machine? Or was there some trick that allowed human intelligence to guide it? If so, how?
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly Enjoyable
This was a highly enjoyable read on a fairly obscure subject. The author has done a great job of setting the context, telling the Turk's story, and drawing lines to some modern... Read more
Published 9 months ago by Gurjeet Ahluwalia
5.0 out of 5 stars Lee Dugatkin
A fantastic read. Simply one of the most enjoyable, fast-paced, non-fiction, books I have read in years.
Published on Dec 1 2003 by Pen
2.0 out of 5 stars Inferior to the other Turk book
Better, as it uses original documents, is the "other" Turk book:
The Turk, Chess Automaton
by Gerald M. Levitt
Published on April 22 2003 by A_2007_reader
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun and Fact
Even though it was slow at times, this book mixes fact with a little mystery. Very well crafted.
Published on April 17 2003 by Aaron Lindsey
4.0 out of 5 stars The Turk Has Left the Building...
As fabulous as Elvis, the mechanical chess player called "The Turk" played for sell-out crowds across Europe and into the USA. Read more
Published on Nov. 21 2002 by Larry Rochelle
5.0 out of 5 stars A Non-Fiction Mystery
This is a wonderful history of a chess playing automaton. The author weaves into the history the mechanical progress of the times as well as the public's yearning to view... Read more
Published on Aug. 26 2002 by Rick Mitchell
5.0 out of 5 stars Not enough stars for rating
I had been wondering about this machine since I first heard about it as a kid. I bought the book immediately on hearing about it. Read more
Published on Aug. 2 2002 by J. Roller
5.0 out of 5 stars Magical Mystery Tour
I am geeky enough to find a famous automaton inherently interesting, especially one that seemed to be intelligent, but "The Turk" tickled my curiosity on whole different... Read more
Published on June 18 2002 by Danny Hillis
5.0 out of 5 stars Plenty of mental torque in "The Turk"
Thorough, well-written exposition on history's famous and fascinating mechanical puzzle. If you're at all interested in chess, automata, computer intelligence (or even stage... Read more
Published on June 18 2002 by Douglas M. Keenan
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