History of Magic

The term "Magic" is etymologically derived from the Old Persian word Magi. Performances we would now recognize as conjuring have probably been practiced throughout history. 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 gambling games, since time immemorial. However, the profession of the illusionist gained strength only in eighteenth century, and has enjoyed several popular vogues.

From 1756 to 1781, Jacob Philadelphia performed feats of magic, sometimes under the guise of scientific exhibitions, throughout Europe and in Russia. 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 escapologist and magician Harry Houdini (real name Ehrich 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. There is a Houdini Museum dedicated to him in Scranton, Pennsylvania. 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.

In this relationship, there is an unspoken agreement between the performer and the audience about what is going on. Unlike in the past, almost no performers today actually claim to possess supernatural powers. There is a debate amongst people who perform mentalism as to whether or not to perform their style of magic as if they have real power or if they can simulate this power.

It is generally understood by most people that the effects in the performance are accomplished through sleight of hand (also called prestidigitation or léger de main), misdirection, deception, collusion with a member of the audience, apparatus with secret mechanisms, mirrors, and other trickery (hence the illusions are commonly referred to as "tricks"). The performer seeks to present an effect so clever and skillful that the audience cannot believe their eyes, and cannot think of the explanation. The sense of bafflement is part of the entertainment. In turn, the audience play a role in which they agree to be entertained by something they know to be a deception. Houdini also gained the trust of his audiences by using his knowledge of illusions to debunk charlatans, a tradition continued by magicians such as James Randi, P. C. Sorcar, and Penn and Teller.

Magic has come and gone in fashion. For instance, the magic show for much of the 20th century was marginalized in North America as largely children's entertainment. A revival started with Doug Henning, who reestablished the magic show as a form of mass entertainment with his distinctive look that rejected the old stereotypes and his exuberant sense of showmanship that became popular on both stage and numerous television specials.

Today, the art is enjoying a vogue, driven by a number of highly successful performers such as David Copperfield, Lance Burton, Penn and Teller, Derren Brown, Barry and Stuart, Criss Angel, Dorothy Dietrich, Greg Frewin and many other stage and TV performers. David Blaine is sometimes included in this category, though his major performances have been more a combination of Houdini-style escape tricks and physical endurance displays than the illusion magic performed by others. The mid-twentieth century saw magic transform in many different aspects. Some performers preferred to renovate the craft on stage (such as The Mentalizer Show in Times Square which mixed themes of spirituality and kabbalah with the art of magic). Others successfully made the transition to TV, which opens up new opportunities for deceptions, and brings the performer to huge audiences. Most TV magicians are shown performing before a live audience, who provide the remote viewer with a reassurance that the illusions are not obtained with post production visual effects.

Many of the basic principles of magic are comparatively old. There is an expression, "it's all done with smoke and mirrors", used to explain something baffling, but contrary to popular belief, effects are seldom achieved using mirrors today, due to the amount of work needed to install it and difficulties in transport. For example, the famous Pepper's Ghost, a stage illusion first used in 19th century London, required a specially built theatre. Modern performers have vanished objects as large as the Taj Mahal, Statue of Liberty, and the Space Shuttle, using other kinds of optical deceptions.

Source: Wikipedia.org

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