At the same time I picked up the Countryman book, I also picked up a used copy of Tom Standage’s The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine. It’s a fairly light read, but very entertaining and full of interesting stuff. It seems to be a pretty complete account of everything that is known about Maelzel’s famous chess machine, from its invention (I didn’t know that Maelzel had in fact purchased it rather than built it, and that it had actually been built by someone else decades earlier — in fact, by the same man who built the mechanical orchestra for whom Beethoven wrote Wellington’s Victory) to its rather sad end gathering dust in a back corner of a Philadelphia museum, where it was destroyed in a fire in the 1850s.
I finished it last night, and reading it has caused me to want to go back and reread (yet again — I’ve probably read this book ten times) the chapters of Robertson Davies’s World of Wonders concerning the narrator’s years as a boy traveling back and forth across Canada with a third-rate carnival, working secretly inside Abdullah, an alleged automaton that does card tricks. So between Countryman and Davies I’ve spent most of the afternoon reading instead of doing something useful.