A Bewitching History of Magic

Escapologist / Peter Keegan/GettyImages

In the 19th century, illusionist Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin was asked by the French government to go on a magical mission to Algeria. In the newly colonized area, local religious leaders called Marabouts were using magic of their own to impress and influence tribes. Robert-Houdin’s job was to go show that French magic was superior.

As host Justin Dodd discusses in our latest episode of The History of Fun, Robert-Houdin’s improbable undertaking in Africa is just one interesting offshoot from the last few centuries of theatrical illusion. Magic has transformed from a little-respected sideshow to a multimillion-dollar industry. Along the way, the art form itself has continuously evolved.

Magician Douglas Leferovich with cards
Magician Douglas Leferovich teaches card tricks / Ethan Miller/GettyImages

Robert-Houdin’s act incorporated meticulously rehearsed illusions, a little bit of mentalism, and the use of robotic automatons that he had invented, drawing on his previous experience as a watchmaker. He delighted audiences for years, and inspired a young Erik Weisz—a young man who would eventually perform under the name Harry Houdini.

Houdini, for his part, would one day turn on his childhood idol. He eventually wrote a scathing takedown in which he decried the “supreme egotism” of Robert-Houdin. The about-face might seem odd, but in a way it’s fitting. Stage magic often draws on the past, but individual artists have often rebelled against convention to push the medium forward.

Watch the full video to learn more about how magic went from the streets to the stages of Las Vegas, and what about the human brain makes being delightfully dumbfounded so entertaining.

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