Science and Magic: Cracking the Secrets of Magic Acts at the Time of Houdin, Meliès and Houdini

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We all want to know what hides behind magicians’ tricks. After meeting Dani Lary, the greatest illusionist of Europe, the MyScienceWork team dove into the personal library of Houdin, a French magician considered to be the father of modern conjuring. Everybody knows that magic is the result of the combination of several tricks. These tricks can draw on dexterity, science, technique or even psychology. Here, we offer you the chance to travel back in time, to the beginning of the 20th century, and to reveal to you a few tricks of the period: those of a time when Houdin, Meliès and Houdini fired the imagination of children and adults alike.


This article is a translation of “Science et Magie : percer les secrets des tours de magie du temps de Houdin, Meliès et Houdini” available at:…ies-et-houdini.htmlIt was translated from French into English by Mayte Perea López.


Back to the days of automata and magic acts enchained underwater

Who were the first magicians? Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) was the greatest magician of the 19th century. He is considered to be the greatest illusionist of all time, who invented almost all the tricks known today in magic. He was also a famous maker of automata. Like Georges Méliès (1861-1938), a French illusionist considered the father of special effects, Houdin studied watchmaking, electricity and automata design. He registered many patents in these areas. He created a magic theater, which would later be bought by George Meliès himself, and founded the Academy of Conjuring in 1891. George Meliès followed his path. Like Houdin, he studied automata science. He became a magician and later invented acts that he would apply to cinematography; this was the advent of special effects. Today, he is considered the first filmmaker to bring poetry and entertainment to this new art.

A few decades later came Harry Houdini (1874-1926), whose stage name was adopted in tribute to his master, Robert-Houdin, and who was also both a great scientist and a great magician. Indeed, to stage his magic acts, Houdini invented, among other things, the taximeter (a system intended to calculate the fare of a taxi ride), ophthalmology devices, the first system of measurement for strikes in fencing, etc. In addition to these inventions, Harry Houdini was famous for his feats of escaping from a tank full of water while heavily chained. Dani Lary, who was interviewed by our team in a recent article (in French), revealed the secret of this sleight of hand. “As far as I know, nobody since has tried chaining him or herself completely and diving into a pool”, he recalled. “I did it several times and I can assure you that it is more difficult to catch hold of the chains to make people believe you are trying to get free than it is to take them off… In the water, chains slip on your skin and fall like stones. So there is neither physical strength nor any other kind of trick involved in this act”. Easy as pie, actually! But, still, someone had to dare to attempt it.


Harry Houdini in 1899 – source: wikipedia
Harry Houdini in 1899

Magic acts of the time

Let’s travel back in time. Imagine that it is 1920 and that you are used to going to the theater to see magicians’ acts. You are fascinated and you want to understand. So you buy the most famous books of the time and start practicing. Some of these books survived and can be found today in the personal library of Dani Lary, a worthy successor of these men of illusion, who had the honor of inheriting Houdin’s books. The MyScienceWork team had the privilege of reading these books. We selected for you a few excerpts of the two major French books in the field of magic learning, called Tours de Physique, les tours les plus amusants que l’on puisse faire en Société (“Tricks of Physics, the most entertaining tricks you can do in society”) and Le Nouveau Magicien Prestidigitateur (“The New Magician Prestidigitator”).


20th century French books of magic, inherited from Houdin, that Dani Lary kindly lent us and from which were taken the quotations below.
Books Library Houdin

At the beginning of the 20th century, a wide variety of advice could be found on how to impress the audience, but it is obvious that magic was not a pastime to which one could be half-devoted. We therefore strongly advise you not to try these tricks at home. Nevertheless, pay close attention to the old expressions used at the time, because they are worth the journey. Let’s start with the experiments requiring a certain dexterity.


Experiments requiring dexterity

The vanishing child In a table, a trapdoor is opened up; below, an elastic cage with bellows, carrying on its base and on the four angles some coil springs, is fixed to the underneath? surface of the table, which is decorated on its front with a rug with long fringes. The fringes are lifted to show that there is nothing. After placing the child on the table, cover him with a wooden or wicker dome. The child disappears through the trapdoor, weighs down on the floor of bellows that sags beneath his weight and completely hides him from view. The dome is removed, the child has vanished; it is put back on the table, the child climbs back up, comes out of his hiding place and reappears before the eyes of the astounded audience.”

Thrusting pins and needles into one’s legs some escape artists thrust two centimeter-long nails into their legs. This can be explained in the following way: somewhere in the middle of the leg, between the tibia and the fibula, there is some kind of little slit, covered only by a thin layer of skin, in which needles can be inserted, and even nails, with no real pain.”

Note that this can also apply to animals…

Thrusting a knife into the head of a rooster or a hen without killing it

A large number of prestidigitators may show you a rooster and tell you that it will be soon removed from the world of the living. I will, they say, cut its head off and you will see its brains: this will not prevent the rooster from singing tonight in its henhouse and from walking around tomorrow in the middle of its farmyard. A moment later he thrusts a knife into its head and shows it hanging from the blade. From the beginning, we see the animal thrashing about by moving its wings and legs; but a moment later, it appears with no movement, its eyes close and people think it is dead. The knife is removed; the rooster falls on the table and its body lies lifeless. A syringe is filled with water to inject a few drops into the animal’s beak; it seems to slowly regain consciousness, and soon it stands up on its legs, it flaps its wings and runs away. Here is the explanation of the facts. As roosters’ and hens’ brains are located at the back of the head near the neck, there is, between the brain and the beak, a part of the head that can be pierced with a knife without killing the animal; and if the head was pierced around this area before performing the act, you will be able to make it hang from the knife as often as you like, without doing any harm to it, as long as the knife is not very sharp, and then the animal will always start thrashing about by moving its  wings and legs to express the unpleasantness of its position.”

So here are a few illusions of miracles, admittedly a bit strange, that can be created thanks to a good knowledge of anatomy. To show how magic uses all the progress made in science to create illusions, here are some more or less famous examples that appeal to properties such as heat, acoustics, optics, electricity and, finally, chemistry.


Experiments based on heat

A flame that does not burn strongly suck up the flame of a candle; it will penetrate your mouth without burning you, because the very strength of the aspiration will prevent it from fixing on your lips, which will be additionally protected by the air sucked up at the same time as the flame, which will be surrounded by a cool layer.”


Acoustic phenomena

The glasses’ concert everyone knows that, upon being struck with an object, the more water a glass contains, the higher the sound it produces. It is easy to tune glasses with a piano by putting  into each glass more or less water, thus obtaining a musical instrument with which you will be able to play any kind of melody. To avoid struggling and losing time with tuning, some conjurors use glasses that are all pierced in such a way that, when filled to the top, water flows out through the holes until the glasses hold just enough water to produce the desired tone. In this way, the instrument tunes itself in an instant.”


Experiments and optical phenomena

“The thaumatrope is a cardboard disk that is spun with the fingers around an axis formed by two thin cords and that produces a curious optical illusion thanks to the persistence of vision on the retina. On one of the sides of the disk is drawn a cage, on the other side is drawn a bird. When the instrument is spun, one sees only a single image: the bird in its cage.”

The Talking Decapitated the trick of the Talking Decapitated is one of the most curious applications of mirrors to physics for entertainment. Everyone has seen this experiment, which was shown repeatedly on the stage of all magic theaters and at all fairs. Spectators arrive at the entrance of a small room in which they do not enter and where they see a table with three legs. On this table there is a human head, placed on a bloodstained sheet in the middle of a tray. This head moves and speaks, answers questions that it is asked. The body of the man who plays the role of the decapitated is simply sitting under the table; but it is concealed by two mirrors of silvered glass placed at a 45-degree angle to the lateral walls, in such a way that, with the image of these walls corresponding to the visible part of the room’s back wall, painted in the same color, people think they see the void under the table. A balustrade keeps the public away and a weak light makes the illusion more complete.”


Electricity experiments

The electric paper

Take a blank sheet of paper, expose it to fire until it is well heated and place it on a varnished table; then rub this paper with the palm of your hand, always in the same direction. When you try to take the sheet of paper from the table, you will feel a very slight resistance and it will seem to you that the sheet is sticking to the wood; if put against a high wall, it will stick to it. If you spread very light objects on the table, such as wafers, wisps of straw, bits of down, etc., these objects, attracted to the electrified sheet of paper, will start shaking. If you conduct the experiment in a dark room, and if you pass a sharp metallic object above the sheet of paper, a phosphorescent glow will pass through the paper.”


Chemistry experiments

Burning globes emerging from water

Throw into a half-filled glass of water a piece of calcium phosphide; almost instantaneously, small globules will rise to the surface of the water and catch fire upon contact with the air, producing an explosion and throwing out rings of white smoke.” “The burning waterIn some sulfuric acid diluted in five times its weight in water, put some zinc filings and some pieces of phosphorus. The surface of the liquid will be immediately covered with flames and the liquid itself will be crossed by trails of fire.”


Modern shows: example of Dani Lary’s - ©danilary 2012
Olivier de Benoist

Our meeting with the great illusionist Dani Lary gave us food for thought. Is it that important, in the end, to know magicians’ tricks? Of course, we like the idea of understanding and making sure that all the steps follow each other in such a way that the audience is completely astounded, to get to the final exclamation “But how did he do that?! That’s amazing!” But even if we knew all the techniques used to bring great illusions within easy reach, the magic of the show lies in its realization, its poetry and its emotions. The magic practiced at the beginning of the 20th century might look simple to us, as we are now used to attending spectacular shows, yet they are a part of our heritage which is still deeply rooted in the heart of magic today.


Find out more:

Le magicien amateur : Tours de physique amusante faciles pour tous, available on Gallica (in French)



dissertation writing : thanks a lot for the post! very interesting!
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