The Thinking Machine

Jacques Futrelle
"The Thinking Machine" Jacques Futrelle Ê
It was absolutely impossible. Twenty-five chess masters from the world
at large, foregathered in Boston for the annual championships,
unanimously declared it impossible, and unanimity on any given point
is an unusual mental condition for chess masters. Not one would
concede for an instant that it was within the range of human
achievement. Some grew red in the face as they argued it, others smiled
loftily and were silent; still others dismissed the matter in a word as
wholly absurd.
A casual remark by the distinguished scientist and logician, Professor
Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, provoked the discussion. He had, in the
past, aroused bitter disputes by some chance remark; in fact had been
once a sort of controversial centre of the sciences. It had been due to his
modest announcement of a startling and unorthodox hypothesis that he
had been invited to vacate the chair of Philosophy in a great university.
Later that university had felt honoured when he accepted its degree of
LL. D.
For a score of years, educational and scientific institutions of the world
had amused themselves by crowding degrees upon him. He had initials
that stood for things he couldn't pronounce; degrees from France,
England, Russia, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Spain. These were
expressed recognition of the fact that his was the foremost brain in the
sciences. The imprint of his crabbed personality lay heavily on half a
dozen of its branches. Finally there came a time when argument was
respectfully silent in the face of one of his conclusions.
The remark which had arrayed the chess masters of the world into so
formidable and unanimous a dissent was made by Professor Van Dusen
in the presence of three other gentlemen of note. One of these, Dr.
Charles Elbert, happened to be a chess enthusiast.
"Chess is a shameless perversion of the functions of the brain," was

Professor Van Dusen's declaration in his perpetually irritated voice. "It
is a sheer waste of effort, greater because it is possibly the most
difficult of all fixed abstract problems. Of course logic will solve it.
Logic will solve any problemÑnot most of them but any problem. A
thorough understanding of its rules would enable anyone to defeat your
greatest chess players. It would be inevitable, just as inevitable as that
two and two make four, not some times but all the time. I don't know
chess because I never do useless things, but I could take a few hours of
competent instruction and defeat a man who has devoted his life to it.
His mind is cramped; bound down to the logic of chess. Mine is not;
mine employs logic in its widest scope."
Dr. Elbert shook his head vigorously. "It is impossible," he asserted.
"Nothing is impossible," snapped the scientist. "The human mind can
do anything. It is all we have to lift us above the brute creation. For
Heaven's sake leave us that."
The aggressive tone, the uncompromising egotism brought a flush to
Dr. Elbert's face. Professor Van Dusen affected many persons that way,
particularly those fellow savants who, themselves men of distinction,
had ideas of their own.
"Do you know the purposes of chess? Its countless combinations?"
asked Dr. Elbert.
"No," was the crabbed reply. "I know nothing whatever of the game
beyond the general purpose which, I understand to be, to move certain
pieces in certain directions to stop an opponent from moving his King.
Is that correct?"
"Yes," said Dr. Elbert slowly, "but I never heard it stated just that way
"Then, if that is correct, I maintain that the true logician can defeat the
chess expert by the pure mechanical rules of logic. I'll take a few hours
some time, acquaint myself with the moves of the pieces, and defeat
you to convince you."

Professor Van Dusen glared savagely into the eyes of Dr. Elbert.
"Not me," said Dr. Elbert. "You say anyoneÑyou for instance, might
defeat the greatest chess player. Would you be willing to meet the
greatest chess player after you 'acquaint' yourself with the game?"
"Certainly," said the scientist. "I have frequently found it necessary to
make a fool of myself to convince people. I'll do it again."
This, then, was the acrimonious beginning of the discussion which
aroused chess masters and brought open dissent from eminent men who
had not dared for years to dispute any assertion by the distinguished
Professor Van Dusen. It was arranged that at the conclusion of the
championships Professor Van Dusen should meet the winner. This
happened to be Tschaikowsky, the Russian, who had been champion
for half a dozen years.
After this expected result of the tournament Hillsbury, a noted
American master, spent a morning with Professor Van Dusen in the
latter's modest apartments on Beacon
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