Father of Modern Magic
Magic wouldn’t be what it is today without Jean-Eugene Robert Houdin. While he didn’t invent magic, he transformed it into what we know in modern times. Before his time, magic was seen as a hobby for people in the lower classes. It would be performed at fairs and other public events. After his influence magic became entertainment for the rich.
Early Life and Occupation
Robert Houdin was born Jean-Eugene Robert to a watchmaker on December 6, 1805 in France. His mother died when he was young. When he was just 11, Jean-Eugene went to the University of Orleans. After graduating at 18, he returned home where his goal was to become an apprentice to his father.
His father’s dream was for Jean-Eugene to become a lawyer, so he became a clerk for an attorney. However, he preferred messing with mechanical items, and his employer told him that he would make a better watchmaker than attorney. Since his father had already retired from the business, he became an apprentice to a cousin.
Jean-Eugene continued to learn about watchmaking. He would pursue that career for his entire life. However, it wasn’t his only interest.
Jean Eugene saved his money to buy two books on clockmaking. When the books arrived and he unwrapped them, instead of the ones he ordered, he discovered two books on Scientific Amusements. He didn’t return them but chose to look through them and discovered the secrets of magic. He practiced in his free time and became interested in the art.
While the books told of how the magic was done, it didn’t tell the steps to do the tricks. He decided to study under a local magician. The magician was also a podiatrist who entertained at local events in his free time. He was quite adept at sleight of hand and taught Jean-Eugene juggling which would improve coordination of hand-eye movement.
Jean-Eugene continued to practice magic and work as a watchmaker. He met the daughter of another watchmaker and they married. He went to work for his new father-in-law in Paris. During this time, he met other amateur magicians as well as a few professionals. He also had his name hyphenated to take on his wife’s maiden name, where he became known as Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin.
His wife died and he remarried, having three young children to care for. He was also hired to perform at private parties. His dream was to perform on an elegant stage, and he began wearing evening clothes for his performances to attain this goal.
His friend who had hired him for the private parties backed his venture. Jean-Eugene rented a group of rooms and turned it into a theatre. Elegant drapes were hung, walls were painted white with gold trim, and candelabras were hung overhead.
For his first performance, Jean-Eugene suffered stage fright, and talked too fast. He felt the show was a disaster. However, he continued on and became much better at entertaining crowds.
Claim to Fame
Jean-Eugene developed several illusions which appealed to the audiences. One was called Second Sight, which was performed as he walked into the crowd blindfolded. He would touch items that the audience held and his assistant described. The act changed and he would ring a bell for his son to describe the objects as they were handed to his father.
Another famous act was the ethereal suspension. Jean-Eugene would place three stools on top of a wooden bench. His son would stand on the stool in the middle and extend his arms. Jean-Eugene would place two canes on top of the stools underneath the arms of his son. Jean-Eugene would take a vial of ether and open it. He placed it under the nose of his son, which supposedly made his son go limp. The magician removed the stool from his son along with the canes. He lifted his son into a horizontal position and then he let go. His son was suspended in air, supported only by his right elbow.
These were just two of the illusions he developed and perfected for audiences. They loved his performances, which made other magicians seek him out to pirate his illusions. His influence on magic was evident in many ways, such as the fact that Harry Houdini took his name from Jean-Eugene.
The legacy of Robert-Houdin was to elevate magic from the streets and fairs to private parties and theatres with magicians wearing formal clothes and entertaining the wealthy. It is a tradition still carried on today.