History Uses

We’ve now spent a bit of time looking at the quite safe world of stage magic, but if these principles were taken further into private worlds of business, politics and international relations – how would they appear?


Back to the dawn of the glory days of stage illusions, one hundred and fifty years ago. In this age the very idea of making a woman disappear was brand new and the now-clichéd powers of “smoke and mirrors” lay as yet undiscovered. The authenticity of wardrobes called “spirit cabinets” that appeared to summon rowdy ghosts sparked heated debate and even riots. The French government deemed the magic of early magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin so inscrutable that they sent him as a special envoy to awe the colonized peoples of French Algeria.

Master magicians attracted the attention now lavished on movie stars. In a flurry of creativity and determination that lasted roughly from 1850 through the Depression, the founders of modern magic created a new form of entertainment that spread across the globe. In elegant, captivating prose, Hiding the Elephant chronicles the ingenuity and passion that characterized the “Golden Age” of conjuring and, through this persuasive account of the intricacies and innovations at the heart of a great illusion, ultimately substantiates magic’s claim to “art” status.


Houdini, who, although he was the greatest escape artist in history, was a terrible magician with a difficult demeanor. Houdini had a knack for publicity that has stood the test of time, but his short, thick build and grandstanding personality suited macho escape challenges far better than artful illusions.

Houdini jealously guarded his mysteries until his unexpected death in 1926


The magician’s practice of misdirection is similar to Madison Avenue’s advertising campaigns where first a brand is introduced, then modified and later multiplied. Similarly, by introducing a running joke, color, situation or dramatic movement (the repetition of the magic word “abracadabra” during a children’s show comes to mind) the magician ­ like the wizards in the advertising industry ­ create a “mindset” that becomes acceptable to follow.

In advertising, this is often done by conditioning the buyer that whatever product they currently use could not be as good as the product the advertiser is selling. In addition, sometimes the buyer is even made to feel guilty or inadequate for using another product. This is misdirection by redirecting or manipulating thoughts.

In fact, the advertising industry adopted a word from the lexicon of the magician: gimmick. In magical parlance, the word indicates an item used to affect a wonder. A hidden spring in a chair might be a “gimmick.” In the advertising industry a “gimmick” is something that makes the buyer move closer to a purchase. For instance, a scratch card to smell a perfume in a magazine ad might be considered a “gimmick” to persuade the buyer to purchase that brand of perfume.


Magic (sometimes referred to as stage magic to distinguish it from paranormal or ritual magic) is a performing art that entertains audiences by staging tricks or creating illusions of seemingly impossible[1] or supernatural[2] feats using natural means. These feats are called magic tricks, effects or illusions.

During the 17th century, many similar books were published that described magic tricks. Until the 18th century magic shows were a common source of entertainment at fairs. A founding figure of modern entertainment magic was Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, who had a magic theatre in Paris in 1845. John Henry Anderson was pioneering the same transition in London in the 1840s. Towards the end of the 19th century, large magic shows permanently staged at big theatre venues became the norm.

Performances that modern observers would recognize as conjuring have been practiced throughout history.[citation needed] For many recorded centuries, magicians were associated with the devil and the occult. During the 19th and 20th centuries, many stage magicians even capitalized on this notion in their advertisements.[4] The same level of ingenuity that was used to produce famous ancient deceptions such as the Trojan Horse would also have been used for entertainment, or at least for cheating in money games.


Opinions vary among magicians on how to categorize a given effect, but a number of categories have been developed. Magicians may pull a rabbit from an empty hat, make something seem to disappear, or transform a red silk handkerchief into a white handkerchief. Magicians may also destroy something, like cutting a rope, and then “restore” it, make something appear to move from one place to another, or they may escape from a restraining device.

Other illusions include making something appear to defy gravity, making a solid object appear to pass through another object, or appearing to predict the choice of a spectator.
One of the earliest books part of which was devoted to debunking the claims that magicians used supernatural methods, and showing how their ‘magic tricks’ were in reality accomplished. Among the tricks discussed were ‘sleight-of-hand’ manipulations with rope, paper and coins. At the time, fear and belief in witchcraft was widespread and the book tried to demonstrate that these fears were misplaced.

He takes an empty bag, lays it on the Table and turns it several times inside out, then commands 100 Eggs out of it and several showers of real Gold and silver, then the Bag beginning to swell several sorts of wild fowl run out of it upon the Table. He throws up a Pack of Cards, and causes them to be living birds flying about the room. He causes living Beasts, Birds, and other Creatures to appear upon the Table.


The escapologist and magician Harry Houdini and developed a range of stage magic tricks, many of them based on what became known after his death as escapology. Houdini was genuinely skilled in techniques such as lock-picking and escaping straitjackets, but also made full use of the range of conjuring techniques, including fake equipment and collusion with individuals in the audience.

The Magic Circle was formed in London in 1905 to promote and advance the art of stage magic. As a form of entertainment, magic easily moved from theatrical venues to television, which opened up new opportunities for deceptions, and brought stage magic to huge audiences.

Many of the principles of stage magic are old. There is an expression, “it’s all done with smoke and mirrors”, used to explain something baffling, but effects seldom use mirrors today, due to the amount of installation work and transport difficulties.


Opinions vary among magicians as to how to categorize a given effect, and disagreement as to what categories actually exist. For instance, some magicians consider “penetrations” a separate category, while others consider penetrations a form of restoration or teleportation. Some magicians have begun to challenge the notion that all magic effects fit into a limited number of categories. Among magicians who believe in a limited number of categories there has been disagreement as to how many different types of effects there are. Some of these are listed below.
• Production: The magician produces something from nothing—a rabbit from an empty hat, a fan of cards from thin air, , or the magician, appearing in a puff of smoke on an empty stage
• Vanish: The magician makes something disappear, a cage of doves, milk from a newspaper, an assistant from a cabinet,. A vanish, being the reverse of a production, may use a similar technique in reverse.
• Transformation: The magician transforms something from one state into another—a silk handkerchief changes color, a lady turns into a tiger,
• Restoration: The magician destroys an object—a rope is cut, a newspaper is torn, a woman is cut in half,—then restores it to its original state.
• Transportation: The magician causes something to move from one place to another—a borrowed ring is found inside a ball of wool, a canary inside a light bulb, an assistant from a cabinet to the back of the theater, or a coin from one hand to the other. When two objects exchange places, it is called a transposition:
• Escape: The magician (or less often, an assistant) is placed in a restraining device (i.e., handcuffs or a straitjacket) or a death trap, and escapes to safety. Examples include being put in a straitjacket and into an overflowing tank of water,
• Levitation: The magician defies gravity, either by making something float in the air, or with the aid of another object (suspension)—a silver ball floats around a cloth, an assistant floats in mid-air, another is suspended from a broom, a scarf dances in a sealed bottle, the magician hovers a few inches off the floor.
• Penetration: The magician makes a solid object pass through another—a set of steel rings link and unlink, a candle penetrates an arm, swords pass through an assistant in a basket, a salt shaker penetrates a tabletop, or a man walks through a mirror
• Prediction: The magician predicts the choice of a spectator or the outcome of an event—a newspaper headline, amount of loose change in the spectator’s pocket,
The methodology behind magic is often referred to as a science (often a branch of physics) while the performance aspect is more of an art form.


The teaching of performance magic was once a secretive practice.[citation needed] Professional magicians were unwilling to share knowledge with anyone outside the profession[citation needed] to prevent the laity from learning their secrets. This often made it difficult for an interested apprentice to learn anything but the basics of magic.
Persons interested in learning to perform magic can join magic clubs.

Here magicians, both seasoned and novitiate, can work together and help one another for mutual improvement, to learn new techniques, to discuss all aspects of magic,—sharing advice, encouragement, and criticism. Before a magician can join one of these clubs, they usually have to audition. The purpose is to show to the membership they are a magician and not just someone off the street wanting to discover magical secrets.

Traditionally, magicians refuse to reveal the methods behind their tricks to the audience. Membership in professional magicians’ organizations often requires a commitment never to reveal the secrets of magic to non-magicians. Magic performances tend to fall into a few specialties or genres. Stage illusions use large-scale props and even large animals.
Platform magic is performed for a medium to large audience. Close-up magic is performed with the audience close to the magician. Escapology involves escapes from confinement or restraints. Pickpocket magicians take audience members’ wallets, belts, and ties.

Mentalism creates the illusion that the magician can read minds. Comedy magic is the use of magic combined with stand-up comedy, an example being Penn & Teller. Some modern illusionists believe that it is unethical to give a performance that claims to be anything other than a clever and skilled deception. Others argue that they can claim that the effects are due to magic.

Another issue is the use of deceptive practices for personal gain outside the venue of a magical performance. Examples include fraudulent mediums, con men and grifters who use deception for cheating at card games.


Magic performances tend to fall into a few specialties or genres.
• Stage illusions are performed for large audiences, typically within a theatre or auditorium.
• Platform magic (also known as cabaret magic or stand-up magic)
• Micromagic (also known as close-up magic or table magic)
• Escapology is the branch of magic that deals with escapes from confinement or restraints.
• Pickpocket magicians use magic to misdirect the audience while removing wallets, belts, ties
• Mentalism creates the impression that the performer possesses special powers to read thoughts, predict events, control other minds, and similar feats.
• Online magic tricks were designed to function on a computer screen. The computer essentially replaces the magician. Some online magic tricks recreate traditional card tricks
• Corporate magic or trade show magic uses magic as a communication and sales tool, as opposed to just straightforward entertainment. Corporate magicians may come from a business background and typically present at meetings, conferences and product launches.
• Street magic is a form of street performing that employs a hybrid of stage magic, platform and close-up magic, usually performed ‘in the round’ or surrounded by the audience.
• Bizarre magic uses mystical, horror, fantasy and other similar themes in performance.
• Quick Change Magic magic combined with changing very fast costumes.
Misuse of magic[edit]
Some modern illusionists believe that it is unethical to give a performance that claims to be anything other than a clever and skillful deception. Most of these performers therefore eschew the term “magician” (which they view as making a claim to supernatural power) in favor of “illusionist” and similar descriptions; for example, the performer Jamy Ian Swiss makes these points by billing himself as an “honest liar.”[21] Alternatively, many performers say that magical acts, as a form of theater, need no more of a disclaimer than any play or film; this policy is advocated by the magician and mentalist Joseph Dunninger, who states “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation will suffice.”

These apparently irreconcilable differences of opinion have led to some conflicts among performers. For example, more than thirty years after the hugely successful illusionist Uri Geller made his first appearances on television in the 1970s to exhibit his self-proclaimed psychic ability to bend spoons, his actions still provoke controversy among some magical performers, because he claimed he was not using conjuring techniques. On the other hand, because Geller bent—and continues to bend—spoons within a performance context, the Dunninger quote may be said to apply.
Less fraught with controversy, however, may be the use of deceptive practices by those who employ conjuring techniques for personal gain outside the venue of a magical performance.

Fraudulent mediums have long capitalized on the popular belief in paranormal phenomena to prey on the bereaved for financial gain. From the 1840s to the 1920s, during the greatest popularity of the Spiritualism religious movement as well as public interest in séances, a number of fraudulent mediums used conjuring methods to perform illusions.

Fraudulent faith healers have also been shown to employ sleight of hand to give the appearance of removing chicken-giblet “tumors” from patients’ abdomens.
Con men and grifters too may use techniques of conjuring for fraudulent goals. Cheating at card games is an obvious example.

The card trick known as “Find the Lady” or “Three-card Monte” is an old favourite of street hustlers, who lure the victim into betting on what seems like a simple proposition: to identify, after a seemingly easy-to-track mixing sequence, which one of three face-down cards is the Queen.

Another example is the shell game, in which a pea is hidden under one of three walnut shells, then shuffled around the table (or sidewalk) so slowly as to make the pea’s position seemingly obvious. Although these are well known as frauds, people still lose money on them.


Because of the secretive nature of magic, research can sometimes be a challenge. Many magic resources are privately held and most libraries only have small populist collections of magicana. However, organizations exist to band together independent collectors, writers, and researchers of magic history, including the Magic Collectors’ Association, which publishes a quarterly magazine and hosts an annual convention;
Performance magic is particularly notable as a key area of popular culture from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries.
Many books have been written about magic tricks; so many are written every year that at least one magic author has suggested that more books are written about magic than any other performing art. Although the bulk of these books are not seen on the shelves of libraries or public bookstores, the serious student can find many titles through specialized stores


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