the life and times of an 18th century hoax
September 21, 2005 9:57 AM Subscribe
I just finished up reading The Turk by Tom Standage (briefly mentioned in passing here) a biography of the chess-playing automaton that toured Europe and later the Americas during the pivotal transition from the 18th to the 19th century. The Automaton was invented as an exercise in national pride by Wolfgang von Kempelen, who considered it a trifle compared to his experiments with mechanical speech synthesis. As a celebrity, the automaton had historic encounters with Benjamin Franklin, Napoleon, Beethoven, Philidor and Charles Babbage, and fictional encounters with the monarchs Catherine the Great, George III and Frederick II. Standage credits it with influencing the development of the Difference Engine, the power loom, Poe's mystery stories, and Barnum's manipulation of the press. The myths surrounding have even caught James Randi, who seems to have been unaware of a colleague's reconstruction based on notes from the last owner.
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