Wonder Workers – an essay on the compatibility of science and magic

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, British engineer and wonder worker, had botched a children’s magic show. He had managed to swallow a gold half-sovereign coin and now it was firmly lodged in his windpipe. It threatened to choke him at any time. He confounded the medical community for several weeks. Shaking, slapping and a tracheotomy had failed. Eventually he was strapped to a rotating wooden board and spun upside down. With Brunel as a human centrifuge the coin finally made its exit.[1]

A few months later in July 1843 the nation was celebrating the successful launch of Brunel’s record breaking ship the SS Great Britain. At the Royal banquet, in front of Prince Albert, one American dignitary remarked: “Sir, let us leave magic to the nursery: give me the magic of the mechanical arts. Consider Sir, that science has but waved her wand over the iron mine, and that beautiful structure has started up ready to launch on the waves.[2] As the Industrial Revolution progressed, marvellous machines and new scientific discoveries were equipping humans with god-like powers. The supernatural was being squeezed and magicians who claimed otherworldly powers were losing out to technology in the public eye.

Has this childish magic been superseded by science? In this essay I’ll argue that magic and science have a symbiotic relationship. From Hero of Alexandria’s pneumatically operated temple doors[3] to modern day Augmented Reality and projection mapping. At the heart of great scientists, engineers, innovators and magicians is an incurable curiosity and a healthy dose of wonder. In conclusion I will explore where I believe 21st Century magic is going.

Brunel for me epitomises the pioneer engineer – he dreamt big; he took risks; he tried new things. Almost all his major projects were complex dances with the impossible. Whether they were transatlantic steamships, gravity defying bridges, dangerous tunnels or superfast railways. Amongst the spectacular successes there were commercial catastrophes. The SS Great Britain, a transatlantic steamship, is a great example of a project that all his critics said was impossible. Surely a coal carrying ship would be too heavy to float or would run out of steam halfway to America?  The solution was to build big. Really big. The larger the ship, the more fuel efficient it becomes. Building a floating giant would be challenging and risky. To add to this he also designed the ship to include an iron hull and propeller. At the time these were both emerging and contentious technologies. Brunel was always searching for, testing and adopting new ideas. He had a thorough knowledge of the past and respect for his craft, but had eyes on the future. Brunel may have been a poor coin conjurer but he had a magical mindset.

Blurring the lines

Across the English Channel in France another magician was at work. Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (1805-1871) was an inventive clockmaker. His father-in-law was trained by master watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet, the same man who Brunel was apprentice to during his teenage years. Robert-Houdin had a special fascination with electricity, which in the early 19th century had just started to be understood and harnessed. He is known today for his exquisite and highly collectible electric clocks.

In his early 20s, due to an accidental mail order mix up Robert-Houdin received a set of conjuring books rather than the precious clock books he’d ordered. A curious new interest was sparked. As the hobby grew he started utilising his mechanical skills to improve existing magic tricks, devise his own and create automatons with a magical twist. New technology put to work covertly. An audience can’t suspect something that they don’t know exists!

It is no surprise to me that someone who is fascinated by understanding and utilising mechanisms would be drawn towards magic. In one sense scientists and magicians are opposites. One takes mysteries and deconstructs. The other constructs mysteries. However, the thing that unites both is a love of wonder, serious play and asking that powerful question: “what if…?” A joy of being a scientist is not in the dissecting but in using discoveries to create and share possibilities. A joy of being a magician is to use impossibilities to inspire and create possibilities for audiences.

By his own account Robert-Houdin was a terrible performer at first; his nerves and a focus on complex method rather than streamlined effect.  Through persistence and practise the presentation improved. He is now remembered as ‘the father of modern conjuring’; partly due to his innovative tricks but mainly due to the change in performance style and venue. Robert-Houdin took magic from the streets to theatres and private homes; creating a lavish set and dressing impeccably.

In 1856 France had a problem. One of its overseas territories in Algeria was being drawn towards a revolt by the local tribal leaders. Robert-Houdin was tasked by the French government to make the civil war disappear. The French knew the local population were superstitious and the idea was to send a magician over to prove that French magic was superior. Robert-Houdin staged a series of shows for the locals. One of the illusions he presented was his creation: The Light and Heavy Chest. The strongest villager was brought up on stage to lift up a wooden box. No problem. Then he was supposedly hypnotised to drain him of his strength and then asked to lift the same box again. This time the box remained unmoved. The man struggled in vain, then in a shocking twist he yelped in pain and ran off the stage in fear. Performances like this and the infamous Bullet Catch left the villagers in no doubt about French power. The revolt died a quick death.[4]

The story is often portrayed as a triumph of rational thinking over irrational belief; of enlightenment versus superstition. In 1584 Reginald Scot wrote The Discoverie of Witchcraft, the first magic book, in an attempt to show that supposed supernatural acts weren’t the work of witches but natural phenomenon, medical conditions or deceptive charlatans. Victims of the witch trials suffered because they found themselves on the wrong side of ignorance.

The Algerians witnessed both a display of magic and the recently discovered power of electromagnetism from Robert-Houdin. The wooden box had an iron plate on the bottom which was then held to the stage floor with an electromagnet that was switched on and off. Later in the performance the unfortunate volunteer experienced an electric shock through the metal handles of the chest. His muscles reacted involuntarily and painfully. Robert-Houdin stood in the middle ground between science and magic. For me the story is an illustration of the blurred interface between science and magic. Science fiction writer Arthur C Clarke famously stated this in his 3rd law:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”[5]

Science Wizards

The 19th century was awash with breathtaking new discoveries and inventors. The scientists and engineers behind them were national celebrities and held in high esteem. Public lecture demonstrations were the must see entertainment of the age. Science mixed with showmanship. They were so popular at the Royal Institution in London that the road outside, in order to regulate traffic, became the first official one way street in the UK. Inside the building along with offices, libraries and research labs, there is a lecture theatre with a large table where the science was centre stage.

As the 19th Century science started to be exploited commercially and as international travel became more accessible the World Expositions sprang up. Their display of technical innovations became a showcase for nations and companies. The first World Expo in 1851 was The Great Exhibition (or Crystal Palace Exhibition) in Hyde Park, London. It lasted for five and a half months. They proved extremely popular with the mix of attractions, shows, grandeur, boundary pushing and one-upmanship. Marvellous inventions were premiered like the telephone (Philadelphia 1876), Ferris wheel (Chicago 1893), diesel engine (Paris 1900), X-ray machine (New York 1901) and the household plug socket (St Louis 1904).

During the same year the natives in Algeria were being scared by Robert-Houdin, a boy named Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) was born. His expertise was in electrical engineering and he became the archetype mad scientist, inventor and futurist. In the fictional book (and film) The Prestige he was portrayed as the ‘science wizard’ behind the strange goings on; a phrase that evokes images of scientist, artist and mystic. The real life Tesla also embodied all three personas and played to it in public. He claimed to see with his mind’s eye and imagine the details of his inventions so clearly that he didn’t have to write anything down. At the World Expos he’d be on stage creating huge lightning bolts, influencing objects at a distance and electrifying his body so it glowed.[6] Here was a man who had tamed the beast of electricity. At the time the public had a healthy fear of this unknown novelty that acted like pure magic.[7] Like Tesla’s electricity, magnets are also magical. You only have to be holding two strong magnets in your hands to feel the force between them. There’s almost a supernatural quality to magnets; they’re a little scary and unworldly!

This new and ominous power was one of the reasons the public in the 19th Century were fascinated by science and those who could harness it. Whereas Robert-Houdin used new scientific discoveries to perform his magic, now magicians were struggling to keep up with the draw of science. Why would the public want to see a show that deceives when you can be wowed by the real thing?

During this time there was another blurring between scientists and magicians; with both drawing inspiration from the other side. It was hard to tell who was who. Scientists and technology companies were using the imagery from magic in their public relations. Some like Joseph Vanek (1818-1889), a Hungarian Professor of Physics, took things further by incorporating magic into his science lectures and toured Europe and Asia with his wonder shows. Magicians found that they had to adapt their presentations. The traditional magician in pointy hat and occult symbols who taps into the supernatural realm is replaced with a scientist in the lab emitting lightning bolts. Show posters are an ideal visual way to observe how trends have evolved in magic. The superbly detailed (and massive) book “Magic. 1400s-1950s[8] highlights this change. Magicians like Robert-Houdin and his Scottish rival John Henry Anderson “The Wizard of the North” toured with elaborate shows that featured magic, science demonstrations and automatons. Individual illusions also had their presentations change to keep up with the times. Take for example Robert-Houdin’s suspension illusion. Initially he claimed the reason his assistant could remain suspended in the air was due to the property of the gas ether. Many years later the illusion had a theme of hypnotism (or mesmerism as it was called at the time, after the pioneer Franz Mesmer.)

Throw into the mix a new breed of quacks and advertisers who wanted to exploit the public’s ignorant fascination with their wonder cures and inventions. Walford Bodie (1869-1939) was a controversial showman and came close to his claim of being the ‘Most Remarkable Man on Earth’. His show was a mix of magic, science, hypnotism, healings and ‘mock’ electrocutions. He angered medical professionals by claiming to be a doctor, caused riots and was good friends with Harry Houdini (who in 1920 gifted him the original Electric Chair used at Sing Sing Prison). The overall effect for the public is that the exact source of their wonder is blurred; is it real or an illusion?

Evolving magic

The new science had forced magicians to evolve both in style and tricks. No longer did they have access to secret powers but instead were mere wonder workers. It was during this time in 1876 that Professor Hoffmann (Angelo Lewis (1839-1919)) dropped a bombshell. His first book ‘Modern Magic’ exposed the workings of magical effects to the general public. Anyone with an interest in understanding the stage tricks could now go to a bookshop and find out. Initially seen as a massive betrayal to the magic community it proved to be a catalyst for magicians to abandon old tricks and develop new, more baffling illusions. The golden age of stage magic had arrived with numerous illusionists touring the world with their wonders.

With performers vying for the top spots by claiming more outlandish feats and stealing each other’s secrets, it was hard to be distinctive. When the medium of moving pictures first appeared in the 1890s, enterprising magicians were quick to adopt using film in magic shows; quite often mixing live action and filmed sequences in the shows. They were also part of the first group to experiment with and develop film special effects. Two pioneer film wizards were Georges Méliès (1861-1938) the new owner of Robert-Houdin’s theatre and David Devant (1868-1941) the first president of The Magic Circle. For a few years there was a sweet spot where magicians held a secret that few others possessed. However, as the use of film as public entertainment grew it caused a huge blow to live entertainment. Theatres closed or were converted into cinemas. Magicians were badly affected as working venues dried up and because Hollywood special effects robbed them of the monopoly of their eye-popping illusions.

The sweet spot where magic and technology blur is often short lived since knowledge only goes one way. For a magician to inhabit this sweet spot they have to be constantly moving and evolving to stay ahead of the crowd. Currently we’re seeing an increasing number of magic shows incorporate Augmented Reality (where a film of the live stage action is digitally manipulated adding extra details), holograms (a modern day twist on Pepper’s Ghost) and projection mapping (surfaces are changed by having images projected onto them). Magicians like Marco Tempest, Xavier Mortimer and Jamie Allan are contemporary magicians exploring the use of this technology. The shows are a visual treat but the danger is magicians will be left behind again as the technology becomes more widespread and becomes the standard. We’re already seeing this now with wireless technology and phone apps. Mentalists who have relied on electronic help are now being accused of technological trickery and finding their £1,000+ investments available in a different guise at high street electronics stores for £25.

I feel, to combat the public’s suspicion of electronics, we will see magic return to a more organic and sleight of hand based art. Strange paraphernalia will be stripped away, the magic will be more pure and the magician more centre stage. In fact we’re already seeing a move in this direction. Recent series’ of Britain’s Got Talent have seen magicians progress from being a laughing stock to finalists. What put them there weren’t fancy trick boxes or gyrating dancers but a likeable person, telling a story, making a connection and sharing their wonder with the audience. Essentially breaking what in theatre is called the “4th wall” that divides performer and audience. New technology might give the performer a temporary edge but as ever, long-term survival is more about the magician than the magic.

Starving for Wonder

If you mention the name Tesla today most people will think about the electric car company. The AC motor at the heart of the car is a direct descendant of Nikola Tesla’s invention back in 1882; and the name most associated with Tesla Cars is Elon Musk (1971- ). Musk is an inventor and engineer who shares a similar pioneer spirit with Brunel; albeit a much more commercially successful spirit! As the founder of the company that merged to become PayPal he has the resources to dream big. His most ambitious project is SpaceX which is a privately run company that has aims to revolutionise space travel and has Mars colonisation in its sights. Already the reusable Falcon 9 rocket project has done the unthinkable and landed vertically on the launch pad rather than resort to a parachute landing. He is often quoted as saying: “An engineer is the closest thing to a magician that exists in the real world.” A statement echoing the American dignitary’s speech at the launch of the SS Great Britain.

Have we surpassed the age of magic? I would argue that as a society we have largely lost the spirit of magic. As G K Chesterton said:

The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.[9]

Technological advancements have been so huge that most people (and businesses) are unaware of what can be achieved. They exceed what most people can think or dream of. Trying to keep up is a daunting prospect. The sheer amount of knowledge is beyond the scope of a single human. Furthermore, we live busy, rushed lives. Everything is 24/7. We wake up and already our phones have amassed a string of notifications. Time cannot be wasted and yet the most meaningful and memorable times are when we slow down.

Perhaps now more than ever there is a place for wonder workers. To grab our attention; to overcome bad assumptions; to perform the impossible; to take us to new territories; to show us new things; to fuel our dreams. Magicians are seen as entertainers but I feel we should aspire to being more than just that. I like to think of myself as a “Curator of Wonder” – someone who searches, filters and shares marvels in the hope it will spark curiosity in the audience to embark on their own journey of discovery. To create a memorable moment that will propel them forward. I’m going to leave the last words with David Copperfield – a modern day Brunel in his drive for the impossible:

My job is to make people dream. Of course, there’s a lot of technical stuff behind the scenes and a lot of hard work behind it, but I get to watch people see the result of that hard work and feel that wonder and feel that discovery, all the time.”



[1] Found in the biographical accounts by Brunel’s son (who by some accounts was the child in the story) and granddaughter. “The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Civil Engineer” by Isambard Brunel Jr (1870) and “The Brunel’s: Father and Son” by Celia Brunel Noble (1938)

[2] The Illustrated London News. July 29, 1843.

[3] The book “Magic: Stage illusions, special effects and trick photography” compiled by Albert A. Hopkins contains various descriptions of early science based illusions.

[4] For a more detailed description see “Illustrated history of magic” by Milbourne Christopher.

[5] Found in his essay “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination”, featured in Profiles of the Future (Revised 1973 edition).

[6] The book “Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion in America” by Fred Nadis provides an excellent account of this period of history.

[7] A fact that was exploited by Thomas Edison – inventor of the first commercial light bulb and proponent of DC (direct current) electricity. Tesla had briefly worked for Edison but left to develop his own projects like an AC (alternating current) motor and generator that solved a massive technical difficulty with AC. Edison wanted to discredit the rival AC system and he fuelled the public’s fears by sponsoring the execution of criminals by AC electrocutions.

[8] Written by Noel Daniel, Mike Caveney, Ricky Jay, and Jim Steinmeyer.Published by Taschen.

[9] Tremendous Trifles (1909) – G K Chesterton



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