11 April 2019

The Turk

Who hasn't seen a picture of 'The Turk', that 19th century chess playing machine that had a strong chess player hidden inside it to take on all comers? I was reminded of this while working on the recent post Chess Player’s Chronicle : Frequency. The first annual volume was prefaced by a full page illustration of the Turk and by a 16-page article on the subject.

I wondered whether the illustration and the article had found their way into the literature. First, here's an overview of Turk images using the technique last seen in Chess Playing Celebrities (March 2019).

Google image search on 'chess turk'
[Call the rows 'A' to 'C' (from top to bottom) and number the images in each row '1' to '7' (from left to right).]

A colorized version of the illustration from 'Chess Player’s Chronicle' (CPC), with similar shading, is in B3. It leads to How a Phony 18th Century Chess Robot Fooled the World (history.com). A black & white version, with a different background, is in A5. It leads to The Turk (wikipedia.org). The Wikipedia caption says,

A copper engraving of the Turk, showing the open cabinets and working parts. A ruler at bottom right provides scale. Kempelen was a skilled engraver and may have produced this image himself.

The CPC version doesn't include the ruler. The anonymous CPC article, 'The Automaton Chess Player', started,

The art of constructing figures to imitate, by means of mechanism, the actions of living beings, appears to have been carried to great perfection by the ancients. In Herodotus we find allusions to what are considered to have been Automata amongst the Egyptians; and have positive testimony that, from the celebrated statue of Memnon, and even from its pedestal, after this wonder of Ancient Egypt was overthrown, beautiful sounds were emitted at the rising and the setting of the sun. Amongst the Greeks and Romans, artificial puppets, called Neurospasti, which could run round a table, moving their heads, eyes and hands, were common.

When I submitted the first clause of the paragraph to Google search, it returned only a handful of references to various editions of the first CPC volume. Has the article not been reproduced elsewhere? This is a pity, because it is well written by someone who knew the subject. The same is true of many of the literary articles in the first volumes of the CPC.

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