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the Complete Review
the complete review - history



The Mechanical Turk
(The Turk)

by
Tom Standage


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Turk



Title: The Mechanical Turk
Author: Tom Standage
Genre: History
Written: 2002
Length: 251 pages
Availability: The Turk - US
The Mechanical Turk - UK
The Turk - Canada
Der Türke - Deutschland
  • UK title: The Mechanical Turk
  • US title: The Turk
  • UK sub-title: The True Story of the Chess-Playing Machine that Fooled the World
  • US sub-title: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine
  • Our annoyance that publishers can't even agree on uniform titles and sub-titles: great

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Our Assessment:

B+ : fine account of the history of an ingenious machine

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A 2/5/2002 James Norton
The Guardian A- 20/4/2002 Simon Singh
The LA Times . 14/7/2002 Bruce Pandolfini
The NY Times Book Rev. B- ¹ 2/6/2002 Dick Teresi
TLS A 3/5/2002 Brian Aldiss

¹   Note: We originally considered this review a more positive one, but Mr. Teresi informs us that he was less enthusaistic than we interpreted him as being: "In the end, you are left unsatisfied. Sort of like spending the evening with a very skillful transvestite. Entertaining at first, but ultimately disappointing"

  Review Consensus:

  Good fun, and a good story

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)n absorbing historical yarn set against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution. (...) This clever -- sometimes overwritten -- book uses the tale of the Turk as a springboard to explore the inner workings of its mechanical contemporaries as well as their creators." - James Norton, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Standage's book is filled with equally delightful stories, which means that the story of artificial intelligence from the Turk to today is squeezed into the final chapter. As with his other books, I would have been more satisfied with a more gradual and substantial connection between the main subject and its modern counterpart. On the other hand, that might have belittled the tale of the incredible Turk." - Simon Singh, The Guardian

  • "Standage connects scientists across the centuries, and the result is pleasantly thought-provoking." - Bruce Pandolfini, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(A)n amazing book. It is entertaining, yet it is not what it seems. It can be enjoyed with blindfold or without. (...) The unreliable narrator is a technique not found often in serious nonfiction." - Dick Teresi, The New York Times Book Review

  • "It is generous on facts (...) Standage reveals precisely how the Turk functioned. His is an enjoyable and decorative little book, with illustrations and clear diagrams of how the trick worked." - Brian Aldiss, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The mechanical Turk was an automaton constructed by Wolfgang von Kempelen towards the end of the eighteenth century. It was a chess-playing machine: a cabinet with a chessboard on top of it and the carved figure of a wooden Turk seated behind it. The carved figure actually played, picking up and moving the pieces on the board, apparently of its own accord -- and managing, in fact, to defeat most of the human players it faced.
       The Turk appeared to be a machine: the inside of the cabinet was opened and shown to the audience before each performance, revealing complex machinery and, apparently, insufficient room to hide a human. What it did was certainly remarkable, as it was capable of reacting to whatever its opponent did, even recognizing illegal moves.
       Von Kempelen's invention was a sensation in its time, first at the court of Maria Theresa, and then on tours throughout Europe and, eventually, the United States. Tom Standage's book provides a detailed history of the apparatus, first in von Kempelen's hands, and then in Johann Nepomuk Maelzel's (it was Maelzel who brought it to the United States).
       It is a surprisingly engaging story, as the ups and downs of the Turk (and its owners) are related, along with the various efforts to explain the secret behind this chess-playing wonder. Along the way the Turk touches the lives of numerous notables: many royals, as well as Napoleon, Charles Babbage, Benjamin Franklin, and even Edgar Allan Poe.
       The remarkable figures and stories behind and around the Turk are often fascinating. Von Kempelen's other inventions and ideas are interesting (and his biography would probably also be a marvelous read). Standage also describes the technological advances of the age well, focussing on automata, but also pointing towards other applications.
       Standage presents many of the explanations proposed in the 18th and 19th century for how the machine worked, but he only reveals the secret of the Turk in the penultimate chapter. It is worth the wait, and particularly well done (if not exactly a surprise).
       A final chapter then looks at modern chess-playing machines, especially the computer programmed as Deep Blue (which devastatingly beat chess-great Garry Kasparov). Throughout the book Standage also considers the question of artificial intelligence, and the possibility of a machine being able to "think" (or -- something very different -- being perceived as being able to think).
       Standage presents the story of the Turk well, separating fact from fiction (and generally trying to explain why certain myths might have arisen). The Turk made a strong impression on the audiences of the day, and Standage conveys this convincingly. He goes into considerable detail about various aspects of the machine and the performance without ever bogging down the narrative too much.
       A quick, entertaining read, nicely done.

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Links:

The Turk: Reviews: Wolfgang von Kempelen: Johann Nepomuk Maelzel: Tom Standage: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Tom Standage writes for The Economist.

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© 2002-2010 the complete review

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