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Review - The [Mechanical] Turk - Tom Standage

 

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This is came so close to being the first book that really isn't popular science - there's very little science in it, though it skirts much of science and engineering - to be awarded our prestigious five stars. It fell short for two reasons, which we'll come back to, but first of all let's make it clear why this is a superb book.

Firstly there's a mystery - we all love a mystery. More than 230 years ago, Viennese courtier and civil servant Wolfgang von Kempelen was to amaze all comers with the most remarkable automaton ever seen. This life size mechanical doll played chess. And not only played chess, but beat most comers. How was it possible?

Secondly there's a fascinating history. The mechanical Turk would "outlive" von Kempelen and ended up having a second career in America. Its varying fortunes in a career that spanned 80 years make a delightful and captivating story.

Finally there's the associated science and technology as Standage brings in key associations like Babbage's game against the machine.

The story unfolds in a well-written fashion that makes this one of the real page turners of the popular science world. It is simply wonderful.

Now those "if only"s. The lesser one, which is Standage's fault, is that the book finishes with an anti-climax. The last section of the book picks up the development of chess playing computers, through to Deep Blue beating Kasparov. This is interesting, but a definite let-down after the main theme - it is, after all, an aside. It would have been much better if this had been got in at the start, along the lines of "here's what has happened with electronic computers, now let's go back and see something even more remarkable".

The second problem is inherent in the story. The mechanical Turk was, in essence, a very clever conjuring trick. We all know the fascination of seeing a magic trick and wondering how its done. Yet almost always, finding out the secret proves to be a disappointment. It is a trick, and we feel let down, even though we knew all along that this was the case. It's human nature. And there is something of a sense of that here.

But any disappointment at discovering how the Turk worked doesn't detract from the fact that the book is a delight, and a fascinating introduction to the technology that lay behind the early mechanical computers.

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Reviewed by Jo Reed

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Last update 05 June 2007