Today is the birthday of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who was born in 1805 in Blois, France. He was a magician and pretty much the father of modern conjuring. He preferred to perform in evening dress in a theatre at a time when most magicians plied their trade in market places or at fairs. He was born Jean-Eugène Robert, he added the Houdin part when he married Josèphe Cecile Houdin in 1830. It was a gesture of love and he needed a special dispensation from the government to do it.
Robert was the son of a watchmaker, but his father wanted something better for him. He wanted his son to be a lawyer. Robert landed a job in an attorney’s office but, instead of studying law like he was supposed to, he was forever fiddling with mechanical objects. His employer sent him back to his father with the suggestion that he really was more suited to watch making than the law. His father had retired, so he became apprentice to his cousin.
Some time in the 1820s, he had saved enough to buy himself a couple of splendid books on clock making. But when he brought his package home and opened it up, he found, not the books he was expecting, but a two volume work called ‘Scientific Amusements’ all about magic tricks. Robert didn’t return the books. He was fascinated. He would practice for hours on end and took lessons in sleight of hand from a magician.
He began to perform at parties. That is where he met and fell for Cecile, whose father was also a watchmaker. It was some time after this that he says he accidentally walked into a shop selling magic tricks. There he met even more magicians, improved his technique and began to build automata. Performing at parties was not really enough for Robert, he wanted something more and eventually got someone to back him so he could open a small theatre at the Palais Royal. There, it seems, he built a mechanical pastry chef that could not only make and sell food, but give its customers the correct change.
Among his other illusions were a mind reading trick that he performed with his son. The boy would be on stage wearing a blindfold whilst Robert moved about the audience collecting objects. His son would guess what they were. The boy could even do this when his father only communicated with him by means of a bell instead of speaking. Also with his son, he performed a levitation trick, which he began by telling his audience that he had discovered that if a person were to sniff very strong ether, they would temporarily become lighter than air. The audience could smell the ether and see its effects. This lead to accusations of child cruelty, but of course, he didn’t really make his son sniff ether every night. He had one of his other sons behind the scenes burning some ether on a shovel.
Robert also employed some of the newly discovered properties of electricity to build a chest that was impossible to lift. He would first invite a child onto the stage who would lift the box easily. Then he would invite a man to come up and do the same. That is when he secretly switched on a powerful electro-magnet that held the chest firmly on the floor so the man could not lift it, no matter how hard he tried.
His most amazing trick was the Marvellous Orange Tree. He could take a small object from the audience, wrap it in a handkerchief and make it disappear. Then he would bring out his orange tree which everyone could see had no blossom or fruit, He would light a special magic flame beneath it, and they would watch as the tree blossomed before their eyes. Then fruit would magically appear. He would pluck the fruit and throw it to the audience so they could see it was real. Then the last remaining orange would split open and two mechanical butterflies would fly up from it, holding the handkerchief. The missing object would be fastened to it. Pretty amazing yes? Don’t believe me? A man called Xavier Tapias makes reproductions of it. You can see one in operation here.
Robert travelled Europe and performed twice for Queen Victoria. In 1852 he moved the location of his Paris theatre to the Boulevard des Italiens. After his death in 1871 his widow sold the theatre to Georges Méliès, the famous silent moviemaker. He also began his career as a magician before he started to experiment with film. The work of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin has been a huge influence on later magicians. The American magician and escape artist Erich Weiss named himself Harry Houdini in honour of Robert-Houdin.