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The Works of Edgar Allan Poe Raven Edition Volume 4

Maelzel's Chess-Player

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Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe

The duck of Vaucanson was still more remarkable. It was _of _the size of life, and so perfect an imitation of the living animal that all the spectators were deceived. It executed, says Brewster, all the natural movements and gestures, it ate and drank with avidity, performed all the quick motions of the head and throat which are peculiar to the duck, and like it muddled the water which it drank with its bill. It produced also the sound of quacking in the most natural manner. In the anatomical structure the artist exhibited the highest skill. Every bone in the real duck had its representative In the automaton, and its wings were anatomically exact. Every cavity, apophysis, and curvature was imitated, and each bone executed its proper movements. When corn was thrown down before it, the duck stretched out its neck to pick it up, swallowed, and digested it. {*1}

But if these machines were ingenious, what shall we think of the calculating machine of Mr. Babbage? What shall we think of an engine of wood and metal which can not only compute astronomical and navigation tables to any given extent, but render the exactitude of its operations mathematically certain through its power of correcting its possible errors? What shall we think of a machine which can not only accomplish all this, but actually print off its elaborate results, when obtained, without the slightest intervention of the intellect of man? It will, perhaps, be said, in reply, that a machine such as we have described is altogether above comparison with the Chess-Player of Maelzel. By no means--it is altogether beneath it--that is to say provided we assume (what should never for a moment be assumed) that the Chess-Player is a _pure machine, _and performs its operations without any immediate human agency. Arithmetical or algebraical calculations are, from their very nature, fixed and determinate. Certain _data _being given, certain results necessarily and inevitably follow. These results have dependence upon nothing, and are influenced by nothing but the _data _originally given. And the question to be solved proceeds, or should proceed, to its final determination, by a succession of unerring steps liable to no change, and subject to no modification. This being the case, we can without difficulty conceive the _possibility _of so arranging a piece of mechanism, that upon starting In accordance with the _data _of the question to be solved, it should continue its movements regularly, progressively, and undeviatingly towards the required solution, since these movements, however complex, are never imagined to be otherwise than finite and determinate. But the case is widely different with the Chess-Player. With him there is no determinate progression. No one move in chess necessarily follows upon any one other. From no particular disposition of the men at one period of a game can we predicate their disposition at a different period. Let us place the _first move _in a game of chess, in juxta-position with the _data _of an algebraical question, and their great difference will be immediately perceived. From the latter--from the _data--_the second step of the question, dependent thereupon, inevitably follows. It is modelled by the _data. _It must be _thus _and not otherwise. But from the first move in the game of chess no especial second move follows of necessity. In the algebraical question, as it proceeds towards solution, the _certainty _of its operations remains altogether unimpaired. The second step having been a consequence of the _data, _the third step is equally a consequence of the second, the fourth of the third, the fifth of the fourth, and so on, _and not possibly otherwise, _to the end. But in proportion to the progress made in a game of chess, is the _uncertainty _of each ensuing move. A few moves having been made, _no _step is certain. Different spectators of the game would advise different moves. All is then dependent upon the variable judgment of the players. Now even granting (what should not be granted) that the movements of the Automaton Chess-Player were in themselves determinate, they would be necessarily interrupted and disarranged by the indeterminate will of his antagonist. There is then no analogy whatever between the operations of the Chess-Player, and those of the calculating machine of Mr. Babbage, and if we choose to call the former a _pure machine _we must be prepared to admit that it is, beyond all comparison, the most wonderful of the inventions of mankind. Its original projector, however, Baron Kempelen, had no scruple in declaring it to be a "very ordinary piece of mechanism--a _bagatelle _whose effects appeared so marvellous only from the boldness of the conception, and the fortunate choice of the methods adopted for promoting the illusion." But it is needless to dwell upon this point. It is quite certain that the operations of the Automaton are regulated by _mind, _and by nothing else. Indeed this matter is susceptible of a mathematical demonstration, _a priori. _The only question then is of the _manner _in which human agency is brought to bear. Before entering upon this subject it would be as well to give a brief history and description of the Chess-Player for the benefit of such of our readers as may never have had an opportunity of witnessing Mr. Maelzel's exhibition.