the turk

manuscript-day 209 of 100

The history of mechanical calculators is far more outbranching, and the whole story is important for understanding, that what a computer does and is based on, is mathematics, and mathematics only. The devices presented so far—from the ‘Antikythera Mechanism’ to Hahn’s calculator—are of tremendous importance for humankind in general, as history then shows. Accordingly they fascinate the elite-circle of scientists of their times. But they harbour no direct meaning for those not ‘in-the-know,’ because in the end, they can ‘just’ calculate, ‘nothing more.’ They are not programable and thus can not combine their calculation powers in order to cope with tasks beyond reckoning—tasks which can be grasped and understood by people who are not astronomers, mathematicians, or savants in general. Tasks which can gain meaning in everybody’s quotidian life. Like, say, playing a game.
    Astoundingly enough, four years before Hahn presents the first working calculator mastering elementary arithmetic, and 67 years before the first design for a programable machine, an apparatus, which seems to do exactly that, appears. In 1770 Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804) presents the ‘Automaton Chess Player’ at Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna, and impresses Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-1780). The machine consists of a table-high wooden cabinet with a chessboard on top, plus the head and torso of an antropomorphic puppet dressed up like a byzantine nobleman. Hence it quickly becomes known as ‘The Turk.’ Before every performance, von Kempelen opens the doors of the cabinet, showing off an intricate clockwork mechanism inside. Then he announces, that The Turk is ready for a challenger. The machine not only proofs that it can perform the knight’s tour, but although shows to be a particularly strong chess player. During his 80-year career of being displayed in Europe and America it flawlessly defeats a plethora of players—among them so prominent opponents like Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)—until it is destroyed in a fire in 1854. Alas, The Turk is a hoax. A fine one, indeed, but a hoax nevertheless.
    In fact not some ingenious clockwork mechanics ‘play’ chess, but expert chessplayers hidden inside the ‘machine,’ controlling the movements of the puppet. (Levitt 2000, Standage 2002) The Turk is not equipped with artificial intelligence, rather it is a mechanical medium relaying interaction between human beings. When inside The Turk nobody knows that you are a grandmaster.
    The sentence is equally true for the doings of a French chess master called Mouret in the 1820s in London, for Charles A. Hopper’s ‘Ajeeb,’ sometimes dubbed ‘The Egyptian,’ first presented in 1868, and ‘Mephisto’, invented by prosthesis maker Charles Gumpel in 1878. All those ‘machines’ are imitations of The Turk—Mephisto at least partially being powered by electricity. Ajeeb is the most succesful of the epigonal lot, touring Europe and America for 60 years. Rumour has it, that from 1894 to 1904 it is operated by US-American high-calibre grandmaster Harry Nelson Pillsbury (1872-1906). Only some years later the first real machine, that indeed can play chess, appears. But before this can happen, another inventor’s work is needed, which happened while the faux chess automatons toured the world.

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