Wednesday, August 13, 2003

book review: automotan

The Turk
by Tom Standage

In the 1700s an Austrian man by the name of Kempelmen built a seemingly marvelous automotan that could play chess. The machine's career was much longer than it's makers, and travelled all over Europe and America winning many more chess games than it lost.

The book explores the history of the automotan and the showmen engineers (in particular Maezel) who built, maintained and displayed it. It was the first cabinet magic ever done, and while nearly everyone guessed it was a trick the exact mechanism wasn't known publicly until the 1800s. Everywhere it went it elicited much excitment, and when on to inspire many a man -- Charles Babbage, PT Barnum and Edmund Cartwright (who went on to buld his own machines revolutionizing the textile industry). Edgar Alan Poe's fame might possibly rest on his written expose of the Turk, the essay also considered the prototype for the modern detective novel.

It's a good, interesting story, both in terms of the people and the machine. For me, I was a little dubious as to how much the Turk actually inspired, but it did remind me again of the whole way technological process is made: by the slow piling on of new information, new complexity so that more and more can be done. We stand not on the shoulders of giants so much, as the shoulders of a gazillion midgets.


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