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Magicians and History of Magic

Magic, also known as prestidigitation and conjuring, is the art of entertaining an audience by performing illusions that entertain, baffle and amaze, often by giving the impression that something impossible has been achieved. Yet, this illusion of magic is created entirely by natural means.

​The practitioners of this mystery art may be called magicians, table magicians, close up 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 performance.


Performances we would recognize as conjuring have probably been practiced 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.

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 specialty 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, 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 lock-picking and escaping straitjackets, but also made full use of the whole range of conjuring techniques. Houdini's show business 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.

In this relationship, there is an unspoken agreement between the magicians and the audience about what is going on. Unlike in the past, almost no performers today actually claim to possess supernatural powers. It is understood by everyone that the effects in the performance are accomplished through sleight of hand (also called legerdemain), 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.

​This is one of the few situations in which people willingly allow themselves to be lied to, and the audience trusts the performer not to exploit this, for example by cheating them out of money. Houdini strengthened this trust 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.

Today (2016), the art is enjoying a vogue driven by a number of highly successful performers that specialise as either stage, TV or close up magicians. The mid twentieth century saw magic transform in different aspects: some performers preferred to renovate the craft on stage - such as The Mentalizer Show in Times Square which dared to combine spirituality and the ancient wisdom of kabbalah with the art of magic - others successfully made the transition to TV, which opens up new opportunities for deceptions.

​A widely accepted code has developed, in which TV magicians can use all the traditional forms of deception, but should not resort to camera tricks, editing the videotape, or other TV special effects - this makes deception too "easy", in the popular mind. Most TV magicians are shown performing before a live audience, who provide the remote viewer with a reassurance that the effect is not obtained by camera tricks.​