Turk 182

A few weeks ago I asked you who you rooted for in the French revolution: peasants, aristocrats, philosophes, bourgeoisie… I also rambled a while about Ben Franklin and imagined a ridiculous Enlightenment action movie pitting Poor Richard against the (fake) chess-playing mechanical clockwork known as the Turk. A friend of mine immediately slapped a “who do you root for in the French Revolution?” poll on his LiveJournal. Alas, he’s taken that site down, so I can’t link to it, but I believe the bourgeoisie turned out to be the surprising fan favorite. Must say something about LiveJournal’s emo youth demographic. My friend also flipped my plans for the Turk. In his version of the blockbuster Ben Franklin Code, the oaken Ottoman was a fomenter of rationalism and revolution, not the servant but the enemy of absolutist monarchies. He might have something there.

Soon after writing that earlier post, I came upon Simon Schaffer‘s article “Enlightenment Automata,” which puts our friend the Turk at the center of a wonderful discussion of eighteenth-century clockworks and their implications for Enlightenment-era debates about liberty, politics, economics, and free will. There’s lots of good stuff by Schaffer floating around the net, particularly at the Hypermedia Research Centre, about which I will hopefully post more later. But to find this particular essay, I fear you may have to read a book.

(Edit: Or not. It seems that much of the historical detail in that article also makes its way into this online piece by Schaffer, in the service of a slightly different thesis.)

Automata were proto-robots–machines that looked like animals, or people, or sometimes larger natural phenomena like a moving model of the solar system and the heavens. Some were real, and some were faked, but either way they were a popular diversion of the Renaissance courts–the sort of thing that Leonardo da Vinci cooked up to amuse the Borgias and Medicis. (Da Vinci is also on my brain, because I just reviewed Tom Misa’s book Leonardo to the Internet for the Business History Review, about which I’d like to post more later.)

Those looking for role-playing game characters or goofy historical synchronicities will be delighted to learn that Britain’s master automata-maker was named John Merlin. In the “Babbage’s Dancer” article, Schaffer writes:

Merlin ingeniously prowled the borderlands of showmanship and engineering. He won prestigious finance from the backers of Boulton and Watt’s new steam engines. He opened his Mechanical Museum in Hanover Square in the 1780s. For a couple of shillings visitors could see a model Turk chewing artificial stones, they might play with a gambling machine, see perpetual motion clocks and mobile bird cages, listen to music boxes and try the virtues of Merlin’s chair for sufferers from gout.

… To help publicise his inventions, Merlin appeared at the Pantheon or at Ranelagh dressed as the Goddess Fortune, equipped with a specially designed wheel or his own newfangled roller-skates, as a barmaid with her own drink-stall, or even as an electrotherapeutic physician, shocking the dancers as he moved among them.

Merlin’s ingenious creations impressed such worthies as (allegedly) Edmund Cartwright, whose power looms automated the Lancashire textile industry; an eight-year-old Charles Babbage, whom I’d love to say more about here but I can’t without getting into Jon Agar‘s brilliant book The Government Machine; and William Wordsworth, who was punning on Merlin’s name and fame when he described Bartholomew Fair like so:

All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
Are here–Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,
The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvelous craft
Of modern Merlins,
Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
All out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters.

One of Merlin’s best customers was the East India Company, who shipped “mechanical clocks, mobile elephants, and automatic tigers” to China to expedite the tea trade. Schaffer quotes some of Merlin’s publicity on the subject: “We can fancy the absorbing admiration they would create in the harems of eastern monarchs, where their indolent hours must be agreeably relieved by these splendid baubles.” (A later generation of British traders would of course find another way to balance the trade deficit with China while helpfully relieving the indolent hours of the Chinese.)

By the late eighteenth century automata had moved from courtly settings to more public markets, theaters, and squares–not unlike Enlightenment ideas. Automata served, Schaffer says, as “both arguments and entertainments,” and they could hardly be avoided as metaphors or models in debates on “the puzzles of good government–of the world by the deity, of the state by the prince, of the workshop by the master, and of the body by spirit.” For obvious reasons, automata made handy illustrations of materialist philosophies. Clockwork imitations of nature made it possible to imagine nature as a machine. Human-seeming automata, however, were philosophically dangerous to some. Couldn’t the close association of human and machine spawn atheism, libertinism, and insurrection? (Extrapolating this whole discussion into some kind of dystopian clockpunk alternate history is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Which brings us back to Ben Franklin and the Turk. Franklin was, it turns out, a friend of the Turk’s “inventor” Wolfgang von Kempelen, and a fan of Kempelen’s chess-playing Turk. It’s not clear to me whether or not Franklin believed the Turk to be a hoax, but he seems to have made no attempt to discredit it. A better choice for my movie’s villain would have been Franz Anton Mesmer, who wowed just the same sort of audiences as the Turk with discourses on animal magnetism and demonstrations of “mesmerism” or hypnosis. In 1784, the same year as the Turk’s debut, Franklin joined Antoine Lavoisier and other French reformers in attacking Mesmer as a fraud.

Franklin routs the mesmerists and their freaky moonbat allies.

Why go to great lengths to debunk mesmerism and not the Turk? Perhaps because the political and philosophical implications of the two were so different. Mesmerism seemed to challenge the existence of free will. Schaffer quotes Jean-Jacques Paulet, another French reformer, who said that mesmerism, if genuine, would teach that “destiny itself is determined by particular genies who guide us without our knowing and without our seeing the strings which hold us … in this lower world we are all like real puppets, ignorant and utterly blind slaves.” Franklin and his Parisian friends would have none of that. The ingenious machinery of the Turk, on the other hand, may have seemed to symbolize the kind of intellectual heights a rational, calculating Enlightenment could achieve.

What complicates all this, of course, is that the Turk was not actually a machine that could act like a human being. It was a human being pretending to be a machine. In the 1820s and 1830s, a handful of British mechanics and mathematicians set about exposing the deception of the Turk. For this generation of industrial-age Britons, the point of the Turk’s story was not the ingenuity of its creator, but rather a moral lesson about the proper uses of technology. Gaudy mechanical tricks could easily fool the ignorant (especially ignorant continentals!) into idol-worship. The proper use of mechanical technology was industrial–making cotton socks. In Natural Magic, an 1832 book debunking all manner of mechanical tricks, Scottish scientist David Brewster wrote:

Those mechanical wonders which in one century enriched only the conjurer who used them, contributed in another to augment the wealth of the nation. Those automatic toys which once amused the vulgar are now employed in extending the power and promoting the civilization of our species.

I could go on and on about this stuff, but you should really just read Schaffer.

Just a bit more about the Turk, though, if only to prove that everything connects to everything else… Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, the wonderful small press publication by magician-actor-collector-of-oddities Ricky Jay, devoted an entire issue to Wolfgang von Kempelen and the Turk. Jay presented Kempelen as somewhere between a charlatan pretending to be an inventor, and a genuine inventor who took a few shortcuts from time to time. The Turk was a hoax, but still required considerable skill to construct. Another project of Kempelen’s was a steam engine that he called an improvement on Boulton and Watts, but which he probably stole from a 1st century Alexandrian. Kempelen did, however, succeed in constructing a mechanical device that mimicked human speech with a bellows and a tube. Ricky Jay writes, in fine Ricky Jay style:

The pursuit of the guttural grail had enlisted an array of eccentric crusaders for centuries, including such oracular imposters as the head of Orpheus on the island of Lesbos, and the figure constructed by Alexander of Abonutichus, exposed by Lucian of Samosata. Albertus Magnus was said to have constructed a brazen head that was destroyed by an irate Thomas Aquinas.

The Imperial Academy of Science in St. Petersburg sponsored a competition in the 1780s to construct an instrument replicating human speech–oh, and I have yet another cool anecdote about the Imperial Academy of Science in St. Petersburg that I want to tell you, but man, I need to control these branching tangents!

Well after his death, Kempelen’s talking machine caught the imagination of the British scientist Charles Wheatstone, inventor of the Wheatstone bridge (which measures electrical resistance) and one of the pioneers of the telegraph. Wheatstone built his own model of Kempelen’s invention, and it apparently worked relatively well. In 1863, Wheatstone demonstrated this device to the Scottish elocutionist Alexander Melville Bell (a model for George Bernard Shaw’s Henry Higgins) and his teenage son, who was, you guessed it, Alexander Graham Bell. Everything connects to everything, especially the topic of one’s own dissertation.

(Oh yes, and years later, Bell would try to buy a model of the talking machine from a swindler, an incident that led him to cross paths with Harry Houdini, which is likely how the whole story came to Ricky Jay’s attention. And while we’re talking about machines that mimic humans and vice versa, some of Alexander Bell’s early telephonic experiments used a severed human ear as part of the telephone. Which has nothing to do with Thomas Edison’s “necrophone” for speaking with the dead. Honest. And you’re not going to get me started here about the great chapter in Jeffrey Sconce’s Haunted Media on spiritualism as a discourse on gender and telecommunications. Because all that, as the Uncle Wiggly books used to say, is another story.)

My point with all this? As I already told you: I like robots.


  1. A nice stepping stone for further investigation. The Schaffer links are very interesting, especially the part in which Babbage’s difference engine inspired Darwin about how miracles in nature could occur without direct divine intervention.

  2. Who to root for in the French Revolution? It’s too soon to tell.

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