Did you know that Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was born today in 1805? He is often called the ‘father of modern magic’. He transformed magic from something shown at county fairs and marketplaces to an art performed in theaters and exclusive parties. Although he had retired, in 1856 Houdin was asked by the Prince-President of France help stop an uprising in French Algeria. Using fake magical abilities, advisers were able to trick local leaders to start fighting the French. Houdin’s spectacular performance convinced the leaders that French magic was ‘stronger’. Later in the 1890’s, a new illusionist, Ehrich Weiss, chose a stage name to honor the great magician. He was known as Harry Houdini.
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Records show that Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was born on December 6, 1805. However, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin’s autobiography listed his date of birth as December 7, 1805.
Initially, Houdin’s family sent him to study law, but Houdin wanted to be a watchmaker like his father.
In the mid 1820’s he ordered a set of books about clockmaking, but a set of books about magic were sent to him accidentally. Instead of returning the books, he read through them and became interested in magic. He learned the basics from amateur magicians and practiced incessantly. As he met other magicians, he learned more about the art.
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin used his skills as a watch and clockmaker to make and redesign many of the mechanical tricks and tools he used.
One of Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin’s most acclaimed automatons was a figure that wrote and drew. The figure was displayed for King Louis Phillipe and eventually sold to P.T. Barnum. This automaton inspired the machines depicted in Hugo.
At first Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin performed at private event and parties. However, he dreamed of opening his own theater. Eventually he was able to open a theater, but the early shows were less than stellar. He practiced and persevered and eventually his show received critical acclaim. This theater became a focal point for magic enthusiasts. It remained a very popular venue until the 1840’s when the Revolution closed the theaters in Paris. Houdin reopened the theater in the 1850’s. After his death the theater was sold to Georges Melies, the pioneer of motion pictures that created the work “A Trip to the Moon”.
During his performances, Houdin wore formal dress clothes, which modern magicians continue to wear today.
Later, many of Houdin’s devices were pirated by one of his associates, who had started making and selling duplicates of Houdin’s work. Other competitors and magicians acquired these devices and began to perform the illusions that Houdin had developed.
After his retirement, Houdin continued his studies and exploration of mechanics and science. He studied electricity. His home was a marvel of the day – completely wired and run with electricity.
During his ‘magical mission’ to French Algeria, Houdin started with informal shows. Later he performed at special galas with the country’s tribal chieftains in attendance. One of the main tricks he used was the Light and Heavy Chest. He invited the strongest tribesman to come and lift the chest, which they could without difficulty. After ‘sapping’ the tribesman’s strength he would engage an electromagnet, which adhered to a metal plate in the chest. He invited the tribesman to once again try to lift the chest, which he could not. When a tribesman would then try to rip dismantle the chest, they would instead cry out in pain. Houdin had rigged the chest to give an electrical shock if the handles were tampered with. The tribesman let go of the handle and ran screaming out of the theater. After the performances, Houdin gave a special presentation to the leaders at the home of the head of the tribe. He invited the rebels to shoot at him with a marked bullet, which he then caught between his teeth. The amazed chieftains swore allegiance to France. When Houdin was returning to France he made sure that the interpreters had orders to make the chieftans understand that what Houdin had done was the result of skill and prestidigitation, not sorcery.
“prestidigitation”, also known as slight of hand, is still used by magicians and the heart of magic performed in close quarters.