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In 1770, a nimble-minded inventor named Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled an extraordinary machine he had built. It was a life-size mannequin seated behind a cabinet, atop of which sat a chessboard. After exposing the machine’s innards to the audience (to prove that no human operator hid inside) and winding its spring, the machine sprang into action, and soundly beat a volunteer chess player from the audience. That was but its first victory of many. It went on to tour Europe, beating the large majority of players who challenged it, including some famous and skilled individuals such as Benjamin Franklin.

From the Wired article:

There are obvious similarities to the rise of the computer era in modern times. The creations of Vaucanson, Kempelen, and their contemporaries are arguably the ancestors of almost all modern machinery; automata occupied the same intersection of technology, entertainment, and commerce that computers do today. Then, as now, many people were ambivalent about the new machines. On one hand, they were fascinated – public exhibitions of automata were wildly popular in London and Paris during the 18th century – but they were also concerned that humans might end up being superseded. Just as science fiction movies of the 1960s featured evil robots and computers, 18th-century books and plays explored the dramatic possibilities of thinking machines, or of people concealed inside boxes and pretending to be machines. While many of these stories were straightforward comedies or romances, a darker mood was also abroad: The Turk’s tour of Europe coincided with the Luddite riots and Mary Shelley’s publication of Frankenstein.

Wired article
Wikipedia entry