“On the way from Vienna to Paris with his family Wolfgang von Kempelen stopped in Neuchâtel, where on 11 March 1783, at the inn on the marketplace, he presented his legendary chess machine, an android in Turkish robes that could play chess.”
The Chess Machine by Robert Löhr
Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen, a Hungarian engineer, wants to dazzle the court of Maria Theresia of Vienna. What better way to do so than by building a chess-playing automaton. His creation, the Mechanical Turk, will go up against the brightest players but what only a few people will know is that this is no great feat of scientific achievement but an elaborate hoax.
Inside the automaton is Tibor, a dwarf who finds himself at the mercy of von Kempelen. Tibor is a master player but having gotten into a scuffle he is fleeing for his life and when von Kempelen offers him a way to make money and escape the authorities he accepts the offer. The agreement will weigh heavily on Tibor’s conscience as he never quite feels it is right to dupe the people but he bides his time.
Meanwhile, von Kempelen, and his assistant, Jakob, work tirelessly to make the Mechanical Turk work perfectly. From what to do to provide a inside light so Tibor can see what chess pieces he needs to move to how setting controls so Tibor can even make the Turk roll his eyes, it is all planned to the smallest detail.
The one thing no one expected was a disastrous event which leads to the death of a young woman and the consequences this will have for the Mechanical Turk. Other scientists will want to discover what makes the automaton work and others will be seeking revenge. Most importantly, Tibor’s conscience, will drive him to find a way out of his agreement with von Kempelen.
While I found all characters to be well-drawn my favorite was Tibor. I thought the author was able to give us a complex character who was pious, intelligent, and who suffered for his decisions. I felt like I really got to know how his mind and emotions worked and that makes for a memorable character.
If you are looking for a historical romp filled with rich details of the time then this is the book for you. The story is actually based on real life events so that only adds to appeal. I think of how excited we get when a new phone or computer comes out on the market so I can only imagine what the people of that era must have thought when they saw a wooden machine playing chess and winning!
As a side note, if you are not a chess player don’t worry, the book won’t leave you in the dark. There is chess-playing but not so much that you lose interest or would get lost.
Source: Personal copy