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The History of Magic



Magicians You Should Know

Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin  (1805 - 1871) John Henry Anderson  (1814 - 1874) Robert Heller  (1826 - 1878)
Davenport Brothers  (1839 – 1911) Harry Kellar  (1849 - 1922) Ching Ling Foo  (1854 - 1922)
Howard Thurston  (1869 - 1936) Eugene Laurant  (1875) Harry Blackstone Sr.  (1885 - 1965)
Harry Blackstone Jr.  (1934 - 1997) Harry Houdini  (1874 - 1926) Dai Vernon  (1894 - 1992)



An Overview

The word Magic is derived from the Magi of ancient Iran. Performances we would recognize as conjuring have probably been practiced throughout history. The same ingenuity behind ancient deceptions such as the Trojan horse would have been used for entertainment, or at least for cheating in gambling games, since time immemorial. However, the respectable profession of the illusionist gained strength during the eighteenth century, and has enjoyed several popular vogues. Successful magicians have become some of the most famous celebrities in popular entertainment.

From 1756 to 1781, Jacob Philadelphia performed feats of magic, sometimes under the guise of scientific exhibitions, throughout Europe and in Russia.
Hieronymus Bosch: The Conjurer, 1475-1480

Hieronymus Bosch
The Conjurer, 1475-1480
Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the first modern magician

Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin
The First Modern Magician
Modern entertainment magic owes much of its origins to Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), originally a clockmaker, who opened a magic theatre in Paris in the 1840s. His speciality was the construction of mechanical automata which appeared to move and act as if they were alive. The British performer J N Maskelyne and his partner Cooke established their own theatre, the Egyptian Hall in London's Piccadilly, in 1873. They presented stage magic, exploiting the potential of the stage for hidden mechanisms and assistants, and the control it offers over the audience's point of view. The greatest celebrity magician of the nineteenth century (or possibly of all time), Harry Houdini (real name Ehrich Weiss, 1874 - 1926), took his stage name from Robert-Houdin and developed a range of stage magic tricks, many of them based on escapology (though that word was not used until after Houdini's death). The son of a Hungarian rabbi, Houdini was genuinely highly skilled in techniques such as lockpicking and escaping straitjackets, but also made full use of the whole range of conjuring techniques, including fake equipment and collusion with individuals in the audience. Houdini's showbusiness savvy was as great as his performing skill.
There is a Houdini Museum dedicated to him in Scranton, PA. In addition to expanding the range of magic hardware, showmanship and deceptive technique, these performers established the modern relationship between the performer and the audience.

In this relationship, there is an unspoken agreement between the performer and the audience about what is going on. Unlike in the past, almost no performers today actually claim to possess supernatural powers (although there are exceptions to this, they are regarded as charlatans). It is understood by everyone that the effects in the performance are accomplished through sleight of hand (also called prestidigitation or léger de main), misdirection, deception, collusion with a member of the audience, apparatus with secret mechanisms, mirrors, and other trickery (hence the illusions are commonly referred to as "tricks"). The performer seeks to present an effect so clever and skilful that the audience cannot believe their eyes, and cannot think of the explanation. The sense of bafflement is part of the entertainment. In turn, the audience play a role in which they agree to be entertained by something they know to be a deception. Houdini also gained the trust of his audiences by using his knowledge of illusions to debunk charlatans, a tradition continued by magicians such as James Randi, P. C. Sorcar, and Penn and Teller.

Magic has come and gone in fashion. For instance, the magic show for much of the 20th Century was marginalized in North America as largely children's entertainment. A revival started with Doug Henning, who reestablished the magic show as a form of mass entertainment with his distinctive look that rejected the old stereotypes and his exuberant sense of showmanship that became popular on both stage and numerous television specials.
Today, the art is enjoying a vogue, driven by a number of highly successful performers such as David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, Criss Angel, Dorothy Dietrich and many other stage and TV performers. David Blaine is sometimes included in this category, though his major performances have been more a combination of Houdini-style escape tricks and physical endurance displays than the illusion magic performed by others. The mid-twentieth century saw magic transform in many different aspects: some performers preferred to renovate the craft on stage --- such as The Mentalizer Show in Times Square which dared to mix themes of spirituality and kabbalah with the art of magic --- others successfully made the transition to TV, which opens up new opportunities for deceptions, and brings the performer to huge audiences. Floating Magic tap, with an endless supply of water

Floating Magic Tap
With An Endless Supply Of Water
A widely accepted code has developed, in which TV magicians can use all the traditional forms of deception, but should not resort to camera tricks, editing the videotape, or other TV special effects --- this makes deception too "easy", in the popular mind. Most TV magicians are shown performing before a live audience, who provide the remote viewer with a (sometimes misleading) reassurance that the effects are not obtained with the help of camera tricks.

Many of the basic principles of magic are comparatively old. There is an expression, "it's all done with smoke and mirrors", used to explain something baffling, but contrary to popular belief, effects are seldom achieved using mirrors today, due to the amount of work needed to install it and difficulties in transport. For example, the famous Pepper's Ghost, a stage illusion first used in 19th century London, required a specially built theatre. Harry Houdini led the field of vanishing large objects, by making an elephant disappear on stage, although not using mirrors, and modern performers have vanished objects as big as the Taj Mahal, Statue of Liberty, and the Space Shuttle, using other kinds of optical deceptions.


Dates in Magic
  • 2700BC - The reputed first known performance of a conjuring effect (cups and balls) by the magician Dedi in ancient Egypt. Dedi had done other effects such as decapitating a birds head and reattach the head resurrecting it. (This is disputed as there is nothing in the reference to Dedi, specifically in the Westcar Papyrus, to indicate that he did the cups and balls for anyone. The famous drawing of two men performing the cups and balls, from the tomb and Beni Hasan is believed by most experts to be bakers making bread with bread molds.)(Note: Since there is no indication that Dedi performed the Cups and Balls, and the Beni Hasan heiroglyph is no longer considered to represent the effect, there is no evidence for the existence of the Cups and Balls during this time period.)
  • 50-300AD - The Acetabularii performed the Cups and balls in ancient Rome using stones and small vinegar cups (hence the name Acetabularii). Acetabularii are a group of magicians specializing on the cups and balls effect
  • 400-1000 - The dark ages; little is known about the history of magic, but much of it was associated with the occult and magic as entertainment is not prominent.
  • 1000-1500 - The Middle Ages where much magic was still associated with the occult and witchcraft. The growing trading nature of society allowed some street or circus performers to make a living out of old classics such as the cups and balls and indeed more modern ideas such as cheating by short changing via sleights with coins and other small objects.
  • 1584 - Reginald Scot publishes The Discoverie of Witchcraft a book designed in part to counter the activities of persecutionists, but at the same time revealing many conjuring secrets of the day. Magic and witchcraft were still linked, and many copies of Scot's book were burnt in the early 1600s.
  • 1805 - Year of birth of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (d. 1871). The "father of modern magic," who brought it from the street and circus side shows to an elegant stage or drawing room setting.
  • 1874 - Year of birth of Harry Houdini aka King of Cards and King of Handcuffs (d. 1926). Real name Ehrich Weiss, he achieved fame as an escapologist.
  • 1876 - The first publication of Modern Magic. Written by Professor Louis Hoffman (1839-1919) (Real name Angelo John Lewis), it was a definitive work on the state of the art of that time.
  • 1894 - Year of birth of Dai Vernon (d. 1992). Aka as The Professor and The Man That Fooled Houdini, he was born as David Frederick Wingfield Verner in Ottawa. The most influential 20th C magician.
  • 1902 - The "Expert At The Card Table" is published by The Charles T. Powner Co. was written by S.W. Erdnase. Considered by serious card workers as one of the most important books written.
  • 1905 - The British Magical Society formed in London, UK; the oldest continually meeting magic society in Europe. Its first President was David Devant. In June it evolved into The Magic Circle. This prestigious organisation acts like a trade union for magicians and has strict rules against exposure. (It expelled its founder for alleged exposure, something it has done to many famous magicians.)
  • 1921 - P.T. Selbit performs the first ever "Sawing in half", something that is, in present day, synonymous with the art of magic.
  • 1926 - On All Hallows Eve at 1:26 pm, Harry Houdini dies.
  • 1949 - The first publication of Royal Road to Card Magic Written by Jean Hugard and Fred Brau, it's still an important first text for card workers today.
  • 1952 - The first publication of Modern Coin Magic Written by JB Bobo, considered by some the "bible" of coin magic, many other works reference this one.
  • 1956 - David Copperfield is born on September 16th, as David Seth Kotkin.
  • 1963 - The Magic Castle is formed by Milt Larsen in Hollywood USA by converting a 1908 Victorian mansion to a centre of magical excellence. Many leading magicians have performed there. Dai Vernon was resident magician in the latter part of his life.
  • 1968 - The book 13 Steps to Mentalism by Corinda was published and is one of the most famous books on mentalism.
  • 1974 - The musical The Magic Show starring Doug Henning opens on Broadway and ushers in a new "Golden Age" of magic.
  • 1985 - Charles Mohr performs the upside down straight escape. At the age of 22, he is the youngest escape artist to ever attempt and successfully make the mid-air escape. This event made front page news in the Salinas Californian, Friday, June 28th, 1985.
  • 1994 - The first WWW magic stores appear following the older text type newsgroups and bulletin boards. Pictorial and information sites soon follow, changing the way magic is learned and distributed.
  • 1997 - The Masked Magician , Val Valentino, provokes much controversy by exposing magic secrets on major Fox TV specials. David Blaine brings "Street Magic" to America.
  • 1999 - Supernatural, Criss Angel, before the mind freak show now by Criss Angel.
  • 2006 - Romany becomes the first woman ever to win a major competition at the world famous Magic Circle when she won the Stage Magician of The Year Title on 29th October


The Magician's Oath

"As a magician I promise never to reveal the secret of any illusion to a non-magician, unless that one swears to uphold the Magician's Oath in turn. I promise never to perform any illusion for any non-magician without first practicing the effect until I can perform it well enough to maintain the illusion of magic."

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