For years the world has watched as chess playing supercomputers have arisen to challenge their frail human opponents. Early last year in fact World Chess Challenger Veselin Topalov spent quite a lot of time training for his title match by playing IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer. This machine is so fantastically intelligent it can perform 600 trillion operations per second while kicking the bag out of you in chess. Both Deep Blue and Deep Thought have been renowned for years in their abilities to best human opponents. Garry Kasparov even went so far as to accuse Deep Blue and IBM of cheating when the then world champion lost a six game match to the machine in 1997.
Geek Trench introduces the first installment of it’s new series Great Moments in Geek History. The Turk was a chess playing automaton built by Hungarian author and inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770. On the surface, the machine appeared to be a moderately sized wooden cabinet that featured the complete torso of a turbaned “Turk”seated behind it, as well as a chess board placed atop. The marvel of the machine was that it was supposed to play chess against any opponent. And it truly appeared that it could! Any challenger could,with von Kempelen’s permission approach the construct and engage it in chess. The only rule stated that the machine must be allowed to make the first move. It then proceeded to physically grasp pieces and move them across the board in defense of its king, while pursuing the challenger’s monarch! The level of sophistication was so great that if an opponent made an illegal move The Turk would actually place the challenger’s piece back where it came from and proceed with its own strategy, thus forfeiting the opponents turn! Emperor Bonaparte himself was bested in 19 moves by The Turk, after a first match where the diminutive King made three illegal moves that ended with The Turk brushing its hand across the board and scattering the pieces. Even elder statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin lost to the clockwork wonder. Von Kempelen would usually stalk menacingly around the room during play, mumbling into a small hand-held coffin he used to enhance spectator suspicion.
By all appearances, The Turk seemed to be a working, programmed automaton built 250 years ago; in reality though The Turk was actually an amazing piece of clockwork trickery! Housed inside the cabinet was a small man, extremely well-versed in the art of Chess, and very well acquainted with the inner workings of The Turk itself. Through use of several precision levers, pulleys, and dials the operator was able to move The Turk’s white chess pieces using the automaton’s arm.The progress of the match above on the cabinet’s chess board was mimicked below by use of strong but tiny magnets to mark the locations of the chess pieces. The cabinet was cunningly designed to allow the doors to be opened revealing a menagerie of brass rods,pulleys, cogs, and dials (many of which were purely ornamental),while still keeping the operator hidden by using a sliding seat that moved the occupant out of spectator view.
Unfortunately after nearly 80 years of touring the world, and hundreds of winning matches, The Turk was destroyed by fire in the mid-1850’s. And although an extremely detailed replica was built in the 1980’s the true marvel of The Turk was lost forever a long time ago. It is gratifying though when you see a few nods to these old wonders. The Sarah Connor Chronicles heavily featured a chess playing computer during the first season. And its human designer of course gave a nod to history in calling it “The Turk”. Still, despite the loss of one of geek-dom’s earliest japes, it’s comforting to consider that we’ve been getting the upper-hand for almost 250 years!
P.S. Topalov lost his 2010 match against still reigning World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand. Better luck next time!
Image Source: [Wikipedia]