When, in 1818, Johann Maelzel put his mechanical “Chess-Playing Turk” on display in the Assembly Rooms in London, he might well have anticipated the excitement it would generate. Ever since its invention by Baron von Kempelen in 1770, this wondrous automaton had been captivating and baffling onlookers in equal measure. After the operator wound a large clockwork-like handle, the “Turk” miraculously sprang to life, playing chess against a real opponent drawn from the audience, usually announcing its victory by uttering the word “échec.”

On 6 June 1820, one curious onlooker recorded having seen it: his name was Robert Willis. At the time, Willis had only recently finished his homeschooling and had not yet embarked upon his university career. As someone who was “an eager examiner of every piece of machinery and ancient building that came his way” (15), and had a particular enthusiasm for clocks and their mechanism,...

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