Friday, December 07, 2007


In 1769, at the behest of Maria Theresa, the Holy Roman empress, there was designed a chess-playing robot called The Turk that was perhaps the most famous in a long line of automata (gratuitous uses of irregular plural form alert) of the 18th and 19th centuries. It quickly became a sensation around the courts of Europe as it seemed capable of rational thought - through not only moving the pieces with the use of its mechanical arm but gestures like shaking its head when faced with human blunders.

In fact, there was of course a certain William Lewis cunningly hidden inside its workings. The Turk was eventually destroyed by fire in 1854, but not after having achieved an impressive success rate, even taking the scalp of Napoleon Bonaparte along the way (checkmated in 24 moves), and devotees can now even play over the annotated games themselves. The fascinating story is in greater detail here, not forgetting its being the basis for the marvellous 1927 movie The Chess Player.

Nowadays, we look to Japan for the latest hi-tech automata or 'karakuri' - the remarkable factory robots, cyber pets, massage chairs, and many more. Surprisingly however, it was way back during the Edo period in the early 17th century that the interest there began.

Here is a beautiful almost awe-inspiring example of a Japanese automaton playing some Elgar on the violin.


joseph said...

hmm...that robot needs to work on his tone and legato. i think we are a bit out of tune as well. impressive, though.

William Bennett said...

yes, really impressive

paradoxically, don't you find the robot's imperfections make it somehow more touching and more, dare I say, human? - it's one thing to be playing a mechanical instrument such as a keyboard, but a stringed instrument that is almost entirely dependent upon feel and touch

John McAndrew said...

John Coltrane's Giant Steps being played by a robot - enjoy (if you can):

I really want to see a room full of robots tackle either version of Ascension now.

Grey said...

Being a trumpet player myself, I lean towards this one.

They should all play together sometime.

William Bennett said...

wow, great links, that Toyota bot can really play - the dull sound of the mechanical fingers is nice on the Giant Steps

David Cotner said...

Stockhausen's dead, baby.

That totally deserves a eulogy from you.