Monday, July 15, 2002

PENomenon is the ultimate in close up and parlor magic, at least according to the advertisements. It reminded me of a trick in The Boy’s Book of Conjuring, a tome so old that the photos are referred to as plates and the magician in them is dressed in Charles Bertram’s Sunday best. The trick is called The Electrified Pipe:

Balance a clay pipe on the edge of a tumbler in such a manner that it may oscillate freely. The problem now is to make the pipe fall without touching it, blowing upon it, agitating the air, or moving the table.

Take another glass, similar to that which supports the pipe, and rub it rapidly on the sleeve of your coat. The glass will be electrified by the friction and when you have rubbed it well, bring it close to the pipe, but without touching the latter. The pipe will turn after the glass, and follow it till it falls from its support.

The same stunt is described with a stick balanced on a chair back in C. Lang Niel’s The Modern Conjurer (1903). It is called Magnetised Paper because a piece of paper or playing card is rubbed on the coat and then used to make the stick topple from its perch.

The best demonstration I ever saw of this phenomenon was given by Steve Shaw (Banachek). He had a large sheet of Perspex balanced on four glass tumblers, one at each corner. Objects placed on this impromptu table could be made to dance around in the most uncanny manner. I remember a cigar tube rolling and spinning about like it was possessed. It was a recreation of the performance of a Russian psychic called Alla Vinogradova. She worked with a cube-like table built from clear plastic and claimed to have telekinetic powers when matches, foil-wrapped cigars and ping pong balls moved around on top of it. The researchers had figured static electricity was the cause but they claimed that it wasn’t the only answer, since none of them achieved the same spectacular results she had:

“My scientific conclusion on this ability is that the object to be moved lies in an electrostatic field, and the added energy from the telekinetic medium causes electrical activity in the field and triggers movement.”

When Steve demonstrated it for me, he didn’t need to rely on psychic powers. Just a little good weather, since effects depending on static electricity are subject to atmospheric changes. Funnily enough, so were Vinogradova’s demonstrations. Footage of Vinogradova turns up on documentaries about Russian psychics and photographs of her table can be seen in the book The New Soviet Psychic Discoveries (1978).