Magic, including the arts of prestidigitation and conjuring, is
the art of entertaining an audience by performing illusions that
baffle and amaze, often by giving the impression that something
impossible has been achieved, almost as if the performer had magic
or supernatural powers. Yet, this illusion of magic is created entirely
by natural means. The practitioners of this mystery art may be called
magicians, conjurors, illusionists or prestidigitators. Artists
in other media such as theatre, cinema, dance and the visual arts
increasingly work using similar means but regard their magical techniques
as of secondary importance to the goal of creating a complex cultural
Performances we would recognise as conjuring have probably been
practised throughout history. The same ingenuity behind ancient
deceptions such as the Trojan horse would have been used for entertainment,
or at least for cheating in gambling games, since time immemorial.
However, the respectable profession of the illusionist gained strength
during the eighteenth century, and has enjoyed several popular vogues.
Successful magicians have become some of the most famous celebrities
in popular entertainment.
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the first modern magician.
Modern entertainment magic owes much of its origins to Jean Eugène
Robert-Houdin (1805-1871), originally a clockmaker, who opened a
magic theatre in Paris in the 1840s. His speciality was the construction
of mechanical automata which appeared to move and act as if they
were alive. The British performer J N Maskelyne and his partner
Cooke established their own theatre, the Egyptian Hall in London's
Piccadilly, in 1873. They presented stage magic, exploiting the
potential of the stage for hidden mechanisms and assistants, and
the control it offers over the audience's point of view. The greatest
celebrity magician of the nineteenth century (or possibly of all
time), Harry Houdini (real name Erich Weiss, 1874 - 1926), took
his stage name from Robert-Houdin and developed a range of stage
magic tricks, many of them based on escapology (though that word
was not used until after Houdini's death). The son of a Hungarian
rabbi, Houdini was genuinely highly skilled in techniques such as
lockpicking and escaping straitjackets, but also made full use of
the whole range of conjuring techniques, including fake equipment
and collusion with individuals in the audience. Houdini's showbusiness
savvy was as great as his performing skill. In addition to expanding
the range of magic hardware, showmanship and deceptive technique,
these performers established the modern relationship between the
performer and the audience.