Last week our favorite tweeting curator, John Overholt, noted that Harvard’s Houghton Library holds one of ten known copies (in English) of Karl Gottlieb von Windisch’s Brife über den Schachspieler des von Kempelen, or Inanimate Reason, as it’s titled in English. The book, or pamphlet, really, was published in 1784 and is Windisch’s account of the infamous mechanical Turk, a chess-playing false automaton presented by Wolfgang von Kempelen in 1770. Overholt, Assistant Curator of Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at Houghton, tells us that Houghton’s copy (call number SG 3675.34.10) came from a significant collection of books on chess bequeathed to Harvard in 1938 by Silas W. Howland. You can see Howland’s great bookplate here.
But what’s it to us?
Earlier this year we published Minsoo Kang’s Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination. Kang explained his argument in a post here this past winter:
Sublime Dreams of Living Machines looks at how intellectuals have utilized the self-moving, life-imitating machine as a symbol and a conceptual object from the time of ancient civilizations to the twentieth century. I look at the Enlightenment—when various notions of the human-being-as-machine and the machine-as-representation-of-the-human became ubiquitous in Western discourse—as the crucial period in the history of the automaton idea. For almost a century before the automaton craze, philosophers, scientists, and writers described the universe, the state, and the human body as machines, contributing to what the historian E. J. Dijksterhuis famously called the mechanization of the world picture. When later mechanics began to build and display actual automata with astoundingly complex mechanisms, they were seen as beautiful, wondrous, and rational representations of the entire worldview of the Enlightenment.
The mechanical Turk marks a significant turning point in the story that Kang tells. He notes two distinct historical eras for the automaton’s standing in the late Enlightenment. The first is the “golden age of the automaton,” the time of the object’s intellectual primacy, when the concept of the automaton signified much more than an ingenious piece of mechanical craft. It was, Kang writes, “used as a heuristic device to illustrate the nature of the body, the state, and even the entire universe constructed by an engineer-God, functioning as the central emblem of the mechanistic cosmos of the classical Enlightenment.”
Next came the period of “the automaton craze,” a time when the object’s primacy in intellectual consideration had passed but when public interest was rising to its climax. This period of heightened public interest ended, Kang argues, with the chess-playing Turk.
What’s most notable about the Turk, of course, is that it wasn’t actually an automaton at all. Though Kempelen presented it with all of the internal-mechanism-displaying pageantry of the era’s other famous automatons and would at times make a show of winding up the device, the Turk was actually a mere puppet. As Kang explains, though, it can’t rightly be called a ruse or a deception, as Kempelen himself apparently never claimed to have built an actual chess-playing machine. But, even for observers well aware that they were witnessing no actual machine, the workings of the chess-player were hardly apparent. Sure, people realized it was doing things no clockwork machine could possibly do, but the actual puzzle of its playing wasn’t solved until decades into its fame.
Kang notes that the significance of the Turk “points not to the celebration of the mechanical, as in the works of the previous decades, but precisely the disillusionment with it in the larger culture,” a disillusionment that Kang takes to mark not just the end of “the automaton craze” but also a significant development in the era’s political thought. From Sublime Dreams:
Since the vast majority of writings on the chess-player took up the challenge of trying to uncover its trickery, the fascination with the object signified not the obsession with and celebration of the mechanical, as in the reception of Vaucanson’s works in the 1730s, but rather the exact opposite, namely the disillusionment with and skepticism toward the grand claims of mechanistic philosophy. The chess-player was not an automaton in the sense of a self-moving machine but an articulate puppet that did an excellent job of pretending to be an automaton. As radical political thinkers of the period also derided the state-machine notion that was related to the world-machine and body-machine ideas, one can interpret the French Revolution as an act of breaking open the false Leviathan-automaton of the monarchy and exposing the mere human players hiding within. So when Robespierre referred to the executed Louis XVI as a “crowned automaton,” he was speaking not just about a single individual who had been beheaded but the entire absolutist-mechanistic order that the revolution had taken apart.
The Turk has had a long afterlife, which Kang traces through an 1893 Ambrose Bierce horror story, to an appearance in Walter Benjamin’s 1940 essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” to Žižek’s 2003 revision of Benjamin’s analysis in The Puppet and the Dwarf.
(Image credit: John Overholt)