Man or machine? It's a mystery
<B>Man or machine? It's a mystery</B>You may have run across the topic of Tom Standage's new book. The story of the chess-playing contraption called the Turk shows up in volumes on the history of computers, technology and, of course, chess. It's one of those remarkable little moments in history that would make a wonderful movie. With <B>The Turk</B>, Standage gives us the first full-length treatment of this very peculiar story, a fascinating narrative characterized by rivalry, deception and adventurous travels. In 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian aristocrat, vowed to Austrian Empress Maria Theresa that he could invent a machine that would be powered by clockwork. Within months, he returned with a mechanical man called, because of his clothing and appearance, the Turk. It was a machine that could play chess. Or was it? At the time, rival inventors protested that Kempelen's Turk was actually a hoax. They insisted that it was not a machine at all but a conjuring trick in which a small human hidden inside played chess games by operating the arms of the wooden figure. Standage explores all the historical personages involved in this curious saga and examines at length the rival theories about the Turk. Was the Turk a supremely good fraud or the world's greatest automaton? He was created during a busy time in Europe, as the industrial revolution gained momentum and changed the very structure of society. Despite naysayers, the Turk's career lasted 85 years, during which he crossed paths with a variety of notables, including Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great and Edgar Allan Poe.
Standage is a vivid and straightforward writer who demonstrates a casual mastery of his chosen topic. In his excellent previous book, <I>The Neptune File</I>, he recounted one of the great stories in astronomy the discovery of the planet Neptune. On a smaller scale, with his fascinating new book, he explores the implications of humanity's changing relationship with technology in the early days of the industrial revolution. He tells the Turk's compelling story as it occurred, without revealing the mystery of the machine until the book's last chapters. <I>Michael Sims' new book, </I> Adam's Navel, <I>will be published by Viking next year.</I>