On December 7, 1805, Jean-Eugène Robert, the "Father of Modern Magic," was born in Blois
, France. He used cutting-edge technologies of the day, and his influence on the next generation of entertainers is not usually recognized. When he was twenty-five, Robert took to wife Cécile-Eglantine Houdin
, and also took her last name, so he became Robert-Houdin. The name was very popular, a generation later a young American magician named Eric Weiss
took the name from his hero and turned it into "Houdini."
At age twenty, Robert Houdin was apprenticed to a watch-maker, who recommended his student do some reading on the profession. Houdin went to the bookstore to buy Berthoud's Traité d'Horlogerie (Treatise on Clockmaking), and the busy merchant quickly sold him two volumes. However, when he got home he was surprised to find the book was called Dictionnaire Encyclopédique des Amusements des Sciences Mathématiques et Physiques (Encyclopedia of Scientific Amusements). The table of contents described "The way of performing tricks with cards--How to guess a persons thoughts--To cut off a pigeon's head, to restore it to life, etc., etc." In his memoirs, Houdin says that this mistake of the bookseller "caused him the greatest joy he had ever experienced" and that "the resemblance between two books, and the hurry of a bookseller, were the commonplace causes of the most important event in his life."
Fascinated by the mysteries he found explained in Scientific Amusements, Houdin found he lacked the skill to perform any of the tricks the author explained. He realized he needed something like the mastery of a pianist in order to perform complicated moves without conscious thought. He realized that musical skill was not exactly what he needed, so he hired the local corn-cutter to teach him juggling. After a month of practice he was able to easily juggle three or four balls, but not satisfied with that, began simultaneously reading and juggling. This he said, "gave my fingers a remarkable degree of delicacy and certainty, while my eye was at the same time acquiring a promptitude of perception that was quite marvelous." Through further self-training of hand, sight, and memory, Houdin gain the incredible skill and dexterity that would make him a premier magician. He also encouraged his son to develop a tremendous memory, and used him as an assistant when he began performing. When he felt he had a show ready to perform, Houndin rented a room in the Galerie de Valois in the Palais-Royal to host the first of his "Soirées Fantastiques." By the end of his eleven-year career, he had a theater bearing his name.
Perhaps because he started as a watchmaker, Houdin seemed to have a great love for mechanisms. In his memoirs he describes two amusing and unique contrivances he had set up at his home. He rigged up a system so that he could listen in on the conversation between a caller and his servant who answered the door. If he did not wish to talk to the guest, he pushed a button in his office which lit up a "white mark" in the hall as a signal to his servant to say he was not at home. Sometimes, even after granting an audience, he found he wished to shorten "a bore's visit." To this effect, he had an electric spring set up behind the sofa which connected to a bell his servant could hear. He said:
In case of need, and while talking, I threw my arm carelessly over the back of the sofa, touching the spring, and the bell rang. Then my servant, playing a little farce, opened the front door, rang the bell, which could be heard from the room where I sat, and came to tell me that M. X---- wished to speak to me. I ordered M. X--- to be shown into an adjoining room, and it was very rare that my bore did not raise the siege. No one can form an idea how much time I gained by this happy arrangement.
Houdin brought a different style and philosophy to magic, which has earned him the title "Father of Modern Magic." Houdin used every-day objects in his illusions rather than complicated machinery, and did not dress in the wizarding robes of those before him. He created the atmosphere of an elegant parlor room. He was the first magician to wear formal evening attire, hence today most people think of magicians in tails and a top-hat. He had style, charisma, and charm, and his audiences dressed up to see his shows. Houdin produced showers of coins on demand, unlimited wine poured from his bottle, a cornucopia produced objects from nowhere. He levitated one son with no visible support, another could name audience-produced items while blind-folded.
Before Houdin, magicians were considered as charlatans or sorcerers, but Houdin did not claim supernatural powers, and denounced those who did. However, he was a mechanical genius and understood more science than his audience and was able perform feats that seemed impossible. People used candles for indoor lighting, but, unlike his audiences, Houdin was familiar with electricity, galvanism and magnetism, and was the first magician to use them in performance. The French government credits him with ending a rebellion in Algiers.
Robert-Houdin made enough money as a magician to buy a mansion near Blois and retire. He spent his time there writing and inventing. Houdin was interested not only in magic but in other sciences as well. He made advances in the study of the human eye, and invented the predecessor to the taxi meter, which measured the distance a vehicle had traveled. On June 13, 1871, Robert-Houdin died, just a few months after the death of his son Joseph-Prosper in the Franco-Prussian war. Although his primary contributions were to the world of magic, Houdin was a man of many interests and many talents.