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Tom Standage: The Turk

15 Aug 2008 · 3 Comments

(Subtitle: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine)

The Turk recounts the amazing true story of a machine that purported to play chess, and which was seldom beaten except by the top players of its era. “The Turk” and its operators enjoyed a long and colorful career that intersected (and sometimes inspired) the lives of political and scientific figures including Joseph Marie Jacquard, Charles Babbage, Ben Franklin, Napoleon, and Edgar Allen Poe.

From its inception many understood that it had to be a trick, with a human being guiding the machine somehow. But, ironically, no one fully divined “The Turk”’s secrets until the age of machines that actually can play chess.

Standage opens with some background on other automata of the era, including Vaucanson’s amazing creations, and wraps up his book with some interesting perspectives on “Deep Blue,” IBM’s chess-playing super-computer that defeated champion Gary Kasparov, and our evolving attitudes toward “intelligent machines” in general.

Standage’s style is lively and engaging. I try to balance (somewhat) “for fun” books and “good for me” books, and this one truly succeeds on both levels. Highly recommended.

needs more demons? Not a bit of it. Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, in particular, has plenty.

Tags: history · s-author · science

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 editrix // 15 August 2008 at 07:28

    I would still love to perform that Turing test as a dramatic reading.

  • 2 random // 15 August 2008 at 07:32

    oh yes! Perhaps I should have mentioned that. Brief, but funny.

  • 3 Aaron // 16 June 2013 at 08:58

    I liked it, but if felt like it was a long magazine article turned into a book.

    Needed more demons.

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