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Magic History: Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin
"Father of Modern Magic"

The magician, Robert-Houdin, was born Jean Eugene Robert in Bois, France in 1805. He became Robert-Houdin upon marriage to Josephe Cecile Houdin.


The son of a clockmaker, Robert-Houdin followed in his father's footsteps by training in horology and taking the craft as his own occupation. This knowledge was to be later used to good effect when he entered the world of performing magic.

When Robert-Houdin discovered magic, it is reported, it happened completely by accident, when a simple administration error resulted in the delivery of a book on magic tricks instead of a clockmaking book - which he'd ordered. He soon became hooked!! Living in Paris, Robert-Houdin caught every magic performance he could, making mental notes along the way. Before long he was not only performing sleight of hand at small family gatherings but masterminding his own repertoire. This continued until he reached the age of forty when he fell under the spotlight of the theatre and thrilled audiences his brilliant magic.

Robert-Houdin's career as a great magician was limited to just eleven years. But in this time his great contribution to magic brought new dimensions to the craft as his inventiveness awarded his the title "Father of Modern Magic". His originality was aided by his vast knowledge of the intricacies of clockmaking; it was his understanding of complex mechanisms which led to his development of "Automata". Not only would his "Automata" increase the range of tricks that could be performed, they would enhance the drama and showmanship of his magic. Being one of the first magicians to utilise electricity in his act, Robert-Houdin took magic onto a higher and more spectacular platform, setting himself apart from other magicians of his time.

In addition, Robert-Houdin brought class to Magic. When he walked on stage, he wasn't fashioned as his contemporaries and predecessors (generally in wizard robes) but attired in evening dress. He brought charm, charisma and class to the stage. Audiences would deck themselves in their finery to enjoy his performances and with this Robert-Houdin brought the upper class family parlour atmosphere to the theatre.

Robert-Houdin's magic, thought innovative, achieved fame through contributing to and enhancing tricks originated by his predecessors. One such trick was his "Second Sight" act. Not a characteristic mechanical propped trick, "Second Sight" involved the assistance of his son, identifying items, belonging to the audience, selected by Robert-Houdin whilst blindfolded. It was in fact another magician's act that saw Robert-Houdin become a sensation.

To add to his credits, in 1856 Robert-Houdin prevented a rebellion in Algeria! The French seconded the magician to discredit the Marabouts, an Arab religious faction in Algeria who were using magic to incite a rebellion, and discredit them he did! He proved his illusions were more powerful than those of the Marabouts.

Robert-Houdin presented his devil fearing Arab audience with his "Light and Heavy Box". With this box he demonstrated the illusion that he had in his power, the ability to deprive the most powerful man they could offer of all his strength. This illusion was achieved by firstly inviting him to lift the box, which he would do successfully. Robert-Houdin then placed him under a trance, explaining whilst under he would be deprived of his strength. Then, the participant was, to his horror, to discover the previously simple task was now impossible. This was actually achieved by building the box with an iron bottom, attached firmly to the spot by an electromagnet built into the stage. Also, for further demonstration of his unfathomable magic powers, Robert-Houdin administered electric shocks to the participant when in contact with the box's brass handles.

This trick and a selection of other amazing demonstrations of Robert-Houdin's magical powers served to cease talks of rebellion.

During his eleven years of show business notoriety, Robert-Houdin's contribution to magic was marked by his fame, his innovation and above all, the saving of human lives.

Though he left this world in 1871, his innovation, repertoire and showmanship lives on in the world's theatres of today.
 


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