Robert-Houdin, known as "The Father of Modern Magic," performed
throughout Europe in the 1840s and 50s. He was one of the
first magicians to perform for the public in theaters, as
opposed to at country fairs, on street corners or in the marketplace.
shows included not just magic as we know it today, but also
demonstrations of lifelike mechanical figures. His early training
as a clockmaker helped him create these automata, some of
which wrote or played instruments and even an acrobat that
swung on a trapeze.
and technology very much influenced the inventions of Robert-Houdin.
In his autobiography, he writes about consulting scientists
and conducting experiments to figure out how to perform a
also kept up with recent scientific developments. Jean-Eugène
Robert-Houdin was one of the first people to find a use for
electromagnetism. He created a new trick called "The
Light and Heavy Chest." He invited a spectator on stage
to lift the small wooden box he said he kept to store his
money. His volunteer always did this easily. Then the magician
commanded the box to stay where it was, so it could not be
stolen. No matter how hard the volunteer tried after that,
he couldn't move it.
inside the wooden chest was a metal plate, and an electromagnet
sat under the stage. When his assistant turned on the magnet,
the strong attraction made it impossible to move the chest.
Robert-Houdin wrote in his autobiography that at this time
"the phenomena of electromagnetism were wholly unknown to
the general public. I took very good care not to enlighten
my audience as to this marvel of science."
it didn't last. According to Robert-Houdin, "At
a later period, when electromagnetism had become more generally
known, I thought it advisable to make an addition to the Light
and Heavy Chest in order to throw the public off the scent..."
When his audiences learned about electromagnetism, Robert-Houdin
totally changed his performance of the trick. He had three
volunteers raise the light box off the floor using a rope
and pulley system. Then he would command the box to become
heavy and it would sink to the floor, raising the three men
holding the rope up off the stage.
his autobiography, Robert-Houdin said that he performed this
same trick in an entirely different way in 1856. The French
government asked him to travel to French-occupied Algeria.
Robert-Houdin wrote that they feared that Algerian magicians
who could eat glass and apparently heal wounds would encourage
the Algerians to rise up and fight the French soldiers. They
wanted Robert-Houdin to perform for the Algerians, hoping
to convince them that the French magician had even greater
usually entertained the people who came to see his show, but
this time he was supposed to frighten the Algerians in his
audience. He wrote that in Algeria, he invited a very strong
man up on stage and claimed that he would use his powers to
make that man so weak that the man would be unable to lift
this small box. Robert-Houdin wrote that he could lift it
easily but the man could not because the magician had turned
on the electromagnet. He said he also rigged the handle of
the box with electricity, so it gave the man an electric shock
which sent him running from the stage.
Robert-Houdin was a great magician and an inventor who studied
science and used the cutting-edge technologies of his day
in his shows. One of the most famous magicians who ever lived
read about Robert-Houdin and wanted to be like him. That's
why a boy named Erich Weiss chose the name Harry Houdini.