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Magician Robert-Houdin


Magician Robert-Houdin
A mid-nineteenth century artist who is fondly recalled as "the father of modern magic," Frenchman Robert-Houdin was a decided force in magic. His professional magic career only spanned some 11 years, but his influence on magic was timeless.

Houdin eventually inspired Eric Weiss to add an "i" to his name and call himself Harry "Houdini." Houdini incorrectly believed that adding the "i" would indicate that he was "Houdin-like" in the French language. Also, Houdini didn't know is that he was honoring the surname of Robert-Houdin's wife. When he married, Robert-Houdin added his wife's family name to his own.

The Watchmaker

Born Jean Eugene Robert, Robert-Houdin was trained in the intricate art of watchmaking. These skills would allow him to create impressive mechanical marvels that were eventually featured in his shows. Robert-Houdin was known for designing and building "mystery clocks," clocks with no mechanical means to keep time and move the hands, as well as intricate singing birds and automatons. He would also adopt and incorporate new technologies of the era, in particular, electricity, into in his magic.

Early in his career as a watchmaker, Robert-Houdin purchased a book on the subject but was mistakenly given a book on scientific amusements, which launched his interest in magic. Robert-Houdin would work as a watchmaker and not launch his professional magic career until 1845, his first performance, when he was near the age of 40.

Some of the legendary feats in Robert-Houdin's show included: "Second Sight," his son, while blindfolded, could easily identify objects held by spectators; a mechanical tree that bore oranges from which a borrowed handkerchief would be produced and held up by two fluttering butterflies and a suspension of a person that is often performed to this day.

Magic Politics

Perhaps most interesting was his use of magic to stop a simmering war. In the 1850s, the country of Algeria was rebelling. Led by the Marabouts, a religious sect with supposedly magical powers, they wanted the country to break its ties to France. By request of the French bureau in Algiers, Robert-Houdin was asked to prove that French magic was stronger than that of the Marabouts.

Performing for the local chieftains, Robert-Houdin caused a warrior to seemingly lose his strength. By suggesting that the warrior could no longer lift a lightweight box, the warrior couldn't. And at the end, the warrior shrieked and ran from the stage. He was secretly shocked with a jolt of electricity. The rebellion was effectively quelled.

In retirement, Robert-Houdin continued to experiment with electricity and mechanisms and wrote books. Something else that Houdin is remembered for, he was the first magician to eschew the heavy robes that magicians of the era traditionally wore. In his performances, Robert-Houdin wore formal evening attire, which magicians wear to this day.

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