In 1769, the court of Empress Maria Theresia witnessed one of that era's most amazing feats of engineering: a machine that could play chess. Artfully constructed by a Hungarian nobleman named Wolfgang von Kempelen, the chess-machine played a unique game against each opponent, far surpassing the abilities of all its fellow automata. Throughout its eighty-five year career, audiences across Europe and the Americas flocked to see the mechanical marvel seemingly capable of human intelligence Napoleon, Charles Babbage, and Benjamin Franklin were among its challengers, and Edgar Allen Poe wrote an essay attempting to explain how it worked. Despite its demise over a hundred and fifty years ago, its mystery continues to fascinate, and its audience's reaction to its Orientalist trappings casts fresh light our present sense of the 'exotic'.
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