Monster in a Box


By Tom Standage

The inside story of an ingenious chess-playing machine that thrilled crowds, terrified opponents, and won like clockwork.

One autumn day in 1769, a 35-year-old civil servant was summoned to the imperial court in Vienna to witness a magic show. Wolfgang von Kempelen – well versed in physics, mechanics, and hydraulics – was a trusted servant of Maria Theresa, the empress of Austria-Hungary. She had invited him in order to see what a scientific man would make of the magician’s tricks. The event was to change the course of Kempelen’s life.

For he was so unimpressed by the performance that, once it was over, Kempelen made an uncharacteristic and audacious claim. In front of the whole court, he declared that he could do better. Maria Theresa could hardly allow such a boast to pass without comment. Very well, she said. Excusing Kempelen from his official duties for six months, the empress challenged him to keep his word. Kempelen agreed not to return to the court until he was ready to stage a performance of his own.

Tom Standage (tomstandage@economist.com) is a technology correspondent with The Economist. This article is adapted from The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous 18th-Century Chess-Playing Machine, copyright © by Tom Standage, to be published in April by Walker & Company. Printed with permission of the publisher.

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