The inscrutable Turk

by Adéle Eisenstein

April 11, 2007 08:00 am As I strolled through the halls of the Műcsarnok, I heard the words “Check…. Check mate,” coming from several corners, where the possibility had been set up for playing chess – against computers, against machines, or simply the person you arrived with.

As József Mélyi, curator of the exhibition, explains, his name and the legend surrounding his chess-playing automaton, the “Turk,” are relatively well known.

But there is much more to this true polyhistor, who served the court of Maria Theresa, was director of the Hungarian salt mines, invented a speaking machine, a typewriter for the blind, steam engines and a water pumping system for Bratislava Castle and Schönbrunn in Vienna, wrote poetry and drama, established the Hungarian Castle Theater – and the list goes on.

The two focal points of the show are certainly the Turk and the original speaking machine, with the fundamental concepts behind them followed through to their modern legacy.

Surprisingly, the Turk is making his first ever appearance in Budapest, sadly in the form of John Gaughan’s painstaking reconstruction, as the original was destroyed in a fire. Its next stop in Karlsruhe will mark a reappearance there, after more than two centuries.

Edgar Allan Poe was one of the leading lights of his time to fall under the machine’s spell. “There is, then, no analogy whatever between the operations of the Chess-Player, and those of the calculating machine of Mr Babbage, and if we choose to call the former a pure machine we must be prepared to admit that it is, beyond all comparison, the most wonderful of the inventions of mankind,” he wrote in Maelzel’s Chess-Player, 1835.

Here is the full story.

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