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Illusion Magic: A History of Optical Illusions and Other Magic Tricks

Illusion Magic: A History of Optical Illusions and Other Magic Tricks

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Illusion magic is a performing art that has existed throughout the ages. In what follows we will refer to this art as magic. One should be careful, however, not to confuse illusion magic with acts of sorcery, which are also referred to as magic. These acts of sorcery involve an attempt to control the natural world through supernatural or paranormal means. Illusion magic, on the other hand, involves the creation of illusions that seem supernatural or impossible, but in fact are achieved by natural means. Moreover, these tricks are meant to entertain the audience. Although modern illusion magic as we know it may be traced to around the 18 th century, its origins can be found in the ancient past.

Tracing the Origins of Illusory Magic

Etymologically speaking, the word “magic” comes from the Old Persian  magush. Subsequently, this word was adopted in Greek and Latin. Later still, the word entered Old French, and from thence, English, where it replaced the Old English  wiccecræft (meaning “witchcraft”). Examples of the practice of magic, however, may have predated Old Persian. 

A wall painting from an ancient Egyptian tomb may contain the oldest depiction of magic. This tomb is located in the necropolis of Beni Hassan, and belongs to Baqet III, a monarch who lived during the 11 th Dynasty (21 st century BC). One of the scenes represented in this wall painting depicts two kneeling men with four inverted bowls between them. Some have interpreted this as the first “cups and balls” routine, a classic magic sleight of hand trick. Others, however, speculate that this may actually be some other type of game that was played by the ancient Egyptians.

Although it cannot be said with absolute certainty that the scene from the wall painting of Baqet’s tomb depicts the “cups and balls” routine, we can be sure that it was performed by the Romans. This magic trick is referred to by Seneca the Younger in his  Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (“Moral Letters to Lucillius”), which dates to around the 65 AD. In his 45 th epistle, Seneca wrote as follows: 

“Such quibbles are just as harmlessly deceptive as the juggler's cup and dice, in which it is the very trickery that pleases me. But show me how the trick is done, and I have lost my interest therein.”

The cups and balls routine is recognized as one of oldest illusionary magic tricks in history. Here it can be seen in one of the colored drawings in the Tübingen house book. (Tübingen University)

The Oldest Magic Trick: The Cups and Balls Routine

Whether it began in ancient Egypt or ancient Rome, the cups and balls routine is arguably the oldest magic trick that has survived till this day, and one that has remained immensely popular. As its name suggests, the trick involves cups and balls. At its most basic, a ball is placed under one of three cups. The magician would then make the ball jump from the original cup to another, or make the ball multiply. In reality, unbeknownst to the audience, the magician has an additional ball on hand. By skilled manipulation, the magician would put the extra ball under one of the cups, whilst removing the original ball as secretly as possible from the original cup.

In spite of its name, the cups and balls has often been substituted with other objects. For example, the trick became known as  il gioco dei bussolotti, which translates to mean “the game of the dice shakers.” This is due to the fact that the Italian magicians who performed this trick used cylindrical boxwood dice shakers instead of cups. Incidentally, this trick was performed in many parts of the ancient world, including the Middle East and various parts of Asia. 

Another interesting fact about the European history of this trick is that magicians would carry the tools of their trade in a bag with strings that was tied around their waist. This was not only a practical way to carry the cups and balls around, but also a convenient place to hide and retrieve the balls. A depiction of this magic trick being performed in Medieval Europe is found in  The Conjurer, an early 16 th century oil painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

Apart from Bosch’s painting of the cups and balls routine, we do not actually have much information about the performance of magic tricks in medieval Europe. Moreover, magic was not viewed as simple entertainment. Bosch’s  The Conjurer, for instance, may be interpreted as a warning against the deception of magicians, as it is clear in the work that whilst one of the audience members is absorbed in the magician’s trick, another is opportunistically (or more likely in league with the magician) relieving him of his money purse.

Oil on wood painting by the Early Neatherlandish painter Hieronmymus Bosch dating back to about 1502. (Public domain)

Reginald Scot: Exposing the Tricks of Illusory Magic and Sorcery

A more serious issue, however, was the grouping of these tricks together with acts of sorcery. In 1584,  The Discoverie of Witchcraft was published by Reginald Scot, an Englishman. Scot’s book exposed many of the tricks performed by magicians, who are portrayed as charlatans. Therefore, the book is considered to be the first published work on magic. 

Scot also argued that since these magicians were merely performing simple tricks, they do not deserve to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. This excessively harsh punishment indicates that the authorities of the time (Scot points his finger at the Roman Catholic Church) were conflating magic tricks with acts of sorcery, thereby resulting in the persecution of magicians as witches.

In spite of its good intentions, Scot’s book did not really change attitudes towards magicians. Moreover, his work was attacked by his fellow scholars in England. Finally, when James VI of Scotland became King of England and Ireland (as James I) in 1603, Scot’s book was ordered burned. Consequently, copies of the first edition of this book are very rare. In spite of the resistance towards Scot’s ideas, magic gradually became more acceptable as a form of entertainment. At fairs, for instance, itinerant magicians would entertain the public with their magic tricks.

Reproduction of a page of the 1584 edition of The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, which explained the tricks and illusory magic performed by magicians of his era. (Public domain)

Isaac Fawkes: Magic, Illusion and the Emergence of the Superstar

Over time, magic not only gained acceptability, but also respectability. In addition to appearing before the public, magicians were also performing for wealthy private patrons. Some magicians even became superstars. One of these magicians of this period who achieved celebrity status was Isaac Fawkes, an English magician who lived between the 17 th and 18 th centuries. 

Fawkes is known to have performed at the Bartholomew Fair from at least 1720 until 1731. The fair, which was held annually between 1133 to 1855, was a major event in London attracting visitors from the ranks of both the rich and poor alike. Apart from performing at such public events, Fawkes also boasted that he had performed his magic tricks for the king, George II. 

Fawkes became a wealthy man thanks to his work as a magician. At the time of his death in 1732, he is reported to have amassed a fortune of over ten thousand pounds, equivalent to at least a million dollars today. An icon in the history of magic and illusion, he has been remembered as a sleight of hand artist.

English magician Isaac Fawkes performed at the Bartholomew Fair from at least 1720 until 1731. His sleight of hand tricks were a major attraction for both the rich and the poor. (Public domain)

The Father of Modern Magic: Robert-Houdin and International Relations

Modern magic, however, only began in the 19 th century. A pivotal figure during this period is Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, a Frenchman who is widely considered to be the “Father of Modern Magic.” Robert-Houdin was born in 1805 in the French city of Blois. His father, Prosper Robert, was a watchmaker, and when Robert-Houdin grew up, he followed in his father’s footsteps. Although Robert-Houdin trained as a watchmaker, he was also interested in magic. Therefore, he honed his skills as a magician, and performed magic tricks as well.

Robert-Houdin differed from earlier magicians in a number of ways. Some of these differences were adopted by magicians who came after him. For instance, instead of dressing up in wizard-like costumes, Robert-Houdin chose to perform his magic tricks in an evening suit. This was perhaps meant to dispel the mystical or supernatural aura that normally surrounded the magician. Apart from that, Robert-Houdin also exposed magicians who used the supernatural as an explanation for their magic tricks, dubbing them as fakes.

Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin is considered the father of modern magic. (Public domain)

This aspect of Robert-Houdin’s magic was put to good use by the French government during the middle of the 19 thcentury. In 1830, Algeria had been captured by the French. The colonization of the country, however, took decades to complete, and there were numerous uprisings against the colonisers. One group of people who were trying to stir up rebellion were the Marabouts, Muslim holy men who used magic tricks to convince the people of their supernatural powers before inciting them to rebel against the French. This was a problem for the French colonial authorities, and they came up with an ingenious way to counter the influence of the Marabouts.

The French decided to fight magic with magic, so to speak, and Robert-Houdin was just the magician for the job. In 1856, Robert-Houdin was sent to Algeria on a mission to convince the Algerians that French “magic” was more powerful than that possessed by the Marabouts. With this objective in mind, Robert-Houdin began giving regular performances in Algeria. 

Amongst the tricks performed by Robert-Houdin were pulling things out from a hat, getting a volunteer to lift an “enchanted” wooden chest, and making a volunteer disappear. Thus, the Algerians were convinced that Robert-Houdin had supernatural powers. Robert-Houdin’s most important performance in Algeria, however, took place on the 28 th of October, during which he performed his magic tricks for 60 tribal chieftains.

Robert-Houdin’s performance for the chieftains was a success. Nevertheless, he was a decent man, and explained his tricks to the chieftains  via an interpreter after the performance. He told them that he used theatre and science, and not the supernatural, to perform his tricks, just like the Marabouts. In addition to explaining how his tricks worked, this also dispelled the supernatural aura that the Marabouts had built around themselves. Consequently, three days after the performance, 30 of the most powerful chieftains pledged their support for France, and presented Robert-Houdin with a scroll praising his magical prowess.

In Victorian England, the Royal Polytechnic Institution was the site for Pepper’s Ghost, a famous illusion created by John Henry Pepper. (Public domain)

Victorian England and Illusory Magic Technology

Whilst Robert-Houdin was achieving fame as a magician in France, his counterparts across the Channel were also attaining success in their work. In Victorian England, magic performances became immensely popular thanks to a combination of mechanical contraptions, ingenuity, and an insatiable curiosity for the strange and unknown. 

Between 1873 and 1905, two particular venues in London became associated with magic performances – the Egyptian Hall and the Royal Polytechnic Institution. The Egyptian Hall became famous as the home of magic, thanks to two renowned magicians who performed there, George Alfred Cooke and John Neville Maskelyne. Other magicians, including the up and coming ones, performed at the Egyptian Hall. Interestingly, in 1898, Harry Houdini, who had yet to establish himself at the time, was refused a place on the bill at the Egyptian Hall.

As for the Royal Polytechnic Institution, it was established in 1838, and its aim was to educate the public in matters of science. Thus, the institution gradually developed into a place where science and magic met, and it came to showcase the latest mechanical and scientific innovations. During the directorship of John Henry Pepper, the Royal Polytechnic Institute became renowned specifically for its magic lantern shows. 

Pepper’s most famous illusion, Pepper’s Ghost, makes use of techniques from these shows. Basically, a person (the so-called ghost) is stationed below the stage, out of the audience’s sight. Light is then shone on this person, whose image is reflected on a glass pane between the magician and the audience. From the audience’s perspective, it looks as though there is a ghost on the stage with the magician.

James Randi is just one in a long line of modern magicians who have amazed and entertained audiences with their illusions and magic tricks. (Open Media Ltd / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Modern Illusory Magic: Magic and Illusion in the 21 st Century

During the 20 th century, the arrival of the television meant that magic could reach an even wider audience. Indeed, this form of entertainment transited easily from the theatre to the television, and thrived in this new medium. Additionally, it seems that as time went by, the educational aspect of magic became less important, and was overshadowed by its entertainment value. Thus, new and more elaborate tricks were devised to entertain audiences. Nevertheless, some modern magicians, such as James Randi, and Penn and Teller, have continued the tradition of educating their audiences by using their knowledge of magic to debunk charlatans.

Magic has been around for about 2000 years, and perhaps even longer. It has entertained many throughout the ages, and will continue to do so in the future. As the 19 th and 20 th centuries have shown, magicians made use of new technology to enhance their performances. Therefore, it would not be surprising if magicians continue to adopt and adapt the latest innovations to their performances, thereby entertaining their audiences with newfound magic tricks and illusions, and becoming part of the history of magic and illusion.

Top image: Magic and illusion have been around throughout history. Source: Nejron Photo / Adobe Stock

By Wu Mingren


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Ancient Origins? ........................................ Yawn!

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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