frieze

Issue 152 January-February 2013 RSS

Picture Piece: Mechanical Turk

Picture Piece

The chess-playing automaton that defeated Napoleon

image

Illustrations from Joseph Freidrich zu Racknitz, On the Chessplayer of Mr. von Kempelen and its Replica, 1789

In 1770, at the court of Empress Maria Theresa in Vienna, a Hungarian inventor named Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled his newest creation: the Schachtürke, a wooden automaton in the shape of an Ottoman pasha that could defeat all-comers at games of chess. It was an instant hit, and Von Kempelen took it all around Europe. Napoleon faced off three times against the Chess Turk, or the Mechanical Turk as it became known in English. So did Benjamin Franklin, who was obsessed by it; the Turk had beaten him.

Allegedly the robot worked via intricate, visible clockwork, but in 1821 an anonymous pamphlet revealed that the Turk was in fact controlled by a chess-playing operator stuffed inside. In that way, it was ahead of its time: why bother with machines when human labour is so much cheaper? At MechanicalTurk.com, owned by Amazon, you can hire ‘workers’ to perform numbingly repetitive tasks – transcribing receipts, tagging images, writing descriptions of porn videos – for as little as one penny per job. Once the digital sweatshop labour is complete, you can then pass it off as the project of pure technology. Which is not so dissimilar from the original automaton: the image of the Turk endures, but the name of the chess player who defeated Napoleon while crouched in a box has been lost to history. 

Jason Farago

is a columnist and critic based in New York, USA. He is a regular contributor to the Guardian and editor of the blog ArtinCommon.net.


frieze is now accepting letters to the editors for possible publication at editors@frieze.com.

About this article

Issue 152 cover

First published in
Issue 152, January-February 2013

by Jason Farago

Buy this issue

Other Articles in Picture Piece View all

Other Articles by Jason Farago

RSS Feeds RSS

Gagosian Gallery
White Cube
Hauser and Wirth
Victoria Miro
Gladstone Gallery
Chisenhale
Issue cover

Order Now

Issue 3 of Frieze Masters Magazine is out now. Order online from just £8.95.

Subscribe

Podcasts

Do you speak English? Added on 15/10/11 Frieze Projects 2011

Listen or Download

Stay updated

  • Follow frieze on Twitter
  • Connect with frieze on Facebook

Sign up to our email newsletter

test

Publications

Frieze New York Catalogue 2014 US $39.95 Buy the new Frieze New York Catalogue 2014

Buy Now

frieze: out now on iPad