Saturday, June 20, 2020

Invisible Men

Man Becoming Invisible. Photographs Taken As He Vanished. That was the headline in The Illustrated London News (20th January 1934). A series of photographs showed a man dressed in a protective suit and helmet standing inside an open-fronted cabinet. His hands were raised and grasping two metal globes hanging above his head. A switch on a control panel was turned and the man slowly faded away. He had become invisible. Thanks to a little editing magic by my good friend and talented designer Vanessa Viana, we can be witness to that magical moment in science.

The accompanying story in The Illustrated London News laid out the details:

A young inventor, Herbert Winck, claims to have perfected, after seven years’ research, an apparatus which can render a man invisible; and these photographs would certainly appear to bear out his claims. His device is to be used, we are told, in a variety turn; and therefore it is not possible here to explain the mechanism of the apparatus. Dressed in garments which are described as an “electro-helmet” and “spectral mantle,” a man enters a cabinet, open at the front, placed on a brilliantly lighted stage. With both hands he touches contact globes above his head, and an electric current is switched on. Gradually he appears to become transparent, and, as the “anode” rays are strengthened, his body disappears into thin air. He is then tangible but not visible; a touch of the hand, we are assured, will verify his continued presence in the cabinet. This spectacular “act” recalls the famous H. G. Wells romance “The Invisible Man,” though in that fantasy the hero achieved invisibility by chemical and not electrical means. A film, soon to be seen at the Tivoli, has lately been based on that very story; but the remarkable effects which Universal have attained in that are due, of course, to trick photography.

The story came to my attention many years ago through the chatter on UFO forums. UFOlogists, raised on too many episodes of The X-Files, maintain that alien technology has been available on Earth ever since the remnants of crashed flying saucers were stored in Area 51. Invisibility was one of those alien technologies. They pointed to the demonstration given in 1934 as proof that invisibility was a scientific reality. Any magician reading the account of the demonstration would leap to another conclusion. This was a version of Pepper’s Ghost.

Pepper’s Ghost is the name given to a theatrical illusion invented by Henry Dircks and exhibited by 'Professoer' John Pepper at the Royal Polytechnic Institution. It was first used in 1862. As Professor Pepper read portions of Charles Dickens’ ghostly tale The Haunted Man, a translucent ghost walked across the stage. ‘This must really be seen to be appreciated though even when seen the spectator is much as ever at a loss to understand the modus operandi by which a delusion so perfect is brought about,’ said one reviewer.

Pepper and Dircks’ invention became the foundation for a whole genre of stage illusions in which people could be made to appear or disappear or transform in full view of the audience. The mechanics of the illusion, a combination of lighting control and mirror reflection, are still in use today. You can see it in action at the Haunted Mansion ride at the Walt Disney resorts where translucent ghosts dance and fly around the haunted ballroom ballroom.

Let’s get back to Herbert Winck. A few months after his London debut, his demonstration made it into the pages of Popular Mechanics magazine (April 1934). What has began as a publicity stunt for a ‘variety turn’ was gaining scientific legitimacy. Here is the account:

After years of research, a young British inventor claims to have produced an apparatus which can render a man invisible although he still stands before you in the flesh. Operation of the device, which is being used for exhibition purposes, is a closely guarded secret but the man who is to disappear is clothed in what is described as an ‘electro-helmet’ and a ‘spectral mantle.’ In this garb he looks like a deep-sea diver as he stands in a cabinet, open at the front, on a brilliantly lighted stage. With both hands he touches contact gloves above his head and an electric current is switched on. As the current becomes stronger it is claimed that the man seems to become transparent, then gradually vanishes, the feet disappearing first, followed by the rest of the body and finally the head. The subject then is said to be tangible but not visible. Spectators are invited to verify the man’s presence in the cabinet by a touch of the hand, and maintain they can feel he is still there but are unable to see him. Even the eye of the camera does not reveal the secret. 
Photographs taken during successive stages of the vanishing act, show only what the human eye perceives.

Magicians had a little more insight than the popular science magazine. In the May 1934 edition of The Magic Circle’s journal, The Magic Circular, they commented, ‘Thoughts of Pepper perforce arise, but there is nothing in the photographs to suggest this.’ What The Magic Circular didn’t recognise was the name of the inventor, Herbert Winck.

Winck was a magician from Germany, not a British inventor as reported in Popular Mechanics. I don’t know much about him other than you’ll find him mentioned in The Linking Ring magazine and the German conjuring journal Die Magie. It was in The Linking Ring that he sold an effect by Fred Milano. It was called Filmo. First advertised in May 1931 it was followed up by a more detailed an intriguing advert in June 1931. Here it is:

The story of the Invisible Man demonstration was later included in The Wonder World Encyclopedia (1936). The story is brief and begins, ‘Herbert Winck, a young inventor, claims to have discovered a method whereby man can be rendered invisible.’ As with the Popular Mechanics report it gains credibility as a scientific device by virtue of nestling neatly between the story of X-Rays and the invention of Television. Photos taken from The Illustrated London News story illustrate the text.

Herbert Winck wasn’t the only person getting press attention for an invisibility machine. Just two years later two Hungarian (Viennese according to some reports) inventors, Stefan Pribil and Adam Gosztonyi, got a considerable amount of publicity for invisible rays they had devised. Another popular science magazine, Modern Mechanix (April 1936), had a feature on both inventors and their devices. Pribil’s device was a small open fronted cabinet in which objects became invisible. If a packet of cigarettes was placed inside, and the ray activated, the box and wrapping disappeared leaving only the cigarettes visible. A volunteer could also place their hand inside the cabinet and watch it slowly dematerialise. ‘This is no illusion done by some magicians, not trick of mirrors,’ the article assured us. 

Adam Gosztonyi gave a demonstration featuring an even larger open fronted cabinet. A chair was examined and then set in front of a striped background inside the cabinet. A young man sat on the chair. And slowly disappeared leaving the chair in place. ‘If you did not think that you were just seeing things, right off you’d say some invisible wires, or anyway, a cleverly arranged set of mirrors. But you’d be wrong in your guess,’ said Mr Gosztonyi.

It’s Pribil rather than Gosztonyi who gets most of the press if you do a newspaper archive search. It’s unclear what the relationship, if any, the two Hungarians had. And in fact there are press stories that they are rivals with a Harold J. W. Raphael of Modern Traders Ltd in London speaking on behalf of Pribil and threatening legal action against Gosztonyi. 

One year later and it is Pribil who is demonstrating the Invisible Man stunt and offering it to buyers as a novelty window display or entertainment. The Daily Express for April 30th, 1937 has a story by reporter Howard Whitman. Five people, including Howard Whitman, stepped behind a ‘glass screen at a forty-five degree angle in front of us, a plain wall with four silvery lamp brackets behind us, shone light shoot up up at us like footlights. There were a half-dozen spectators in the darkness outside.’ Moments passed and nothing seemed to happen. Whitman said, “I was about to chuckle because all five of us were there just as solid as statues, when a spectator’s voice creaked, ‘They’re gone. They’re vanished completely. Only the chairs left now.’ And minutes later: ‘Look, they’re coming back.’” Whitman then watched the demonstration from the front and saw Pribil’s girlfriend, Ebba Anderson, become invisible, disappearing from the chair she was sitting on. The article concluded with an interesting clue from Whitman: ‘Scientist Pribil made a cigarette case vanish leaving only the cigarettes. “Miracle!” gasped a spectator. And if I hadn’t seen something out of the corner of my eye while I was invisible, I would have gasped “Miracle,” too.’

Pribil said that with enough funding, a thousand pounds, he could make the statue of Eros disappear from Piccadilly Circus. And for ten thousand he could make St Paul’s disappear. Pribil did get £250 from Hungarian screenwriter Akos Tolnay who was living in London. In October of 1937, Tolnay sued Pribil claiming that he was forced to part with the money by ‘fraudulent misrepresentation.’ He said he did not know how the invisibility device operated.

What Whitman saw and Tolnay invested in is clear from the 1939 patents that Pribil filed in Berlin and Canada. The Optical Illusion Apparatus was indeed a transformation illusion using a sheet of glass. The glass was not clear but was tinted. According to Pribil it was this tinted colour that avoided a ghosting effect as the reflected image took over from the real image. Multiple changes were possible by having a rotating chamber in the hidden compartment. What is also unusual is that the hidden room usually seen in this type of illusion is above the volunteers rather than to the side.

It’s surprising how many accounts of invisibility experiments you can find in magic’s literature. In his biography, It’s Fun to be Fooled, illusionist Horace Golden describes how he invented a camouflage method that would render troops and vehicles invisible. It was reported in US newspapers in September 1918, a couple of months before WW1 came to an end. The headline used by the Salt Lake City Herald was, ‘Mystic Goldin Devises Trick to Baffle Hun.’ Goldin said that he had demonstrated his invention to the military and was heading to Washington for full approval:

Brigadier A. P. Blocksom, department commander of the United States army in Honolulu; Colonel Mettler of the ordnance department, and other army officers have inspected the invention. Though they are reticent regarding its value for war uses, Mr Goldin will carry letters from military officials which will pave the way for a thorough investigation of his invention before high officers of the army.
The performer says this his invention is of the camouflage variety and that it can give advantage to allied snipers and machine gunners and completely mystify the Hun. A demonstration of the Goldin device was given in Honolulu and San Francisco and all present went away mystified.

Nothing came of Goldin’s invention, if it ever existed. Goldin died in 1939 and memories of his invention might have died with him were it not for Joseph Dunninger. When WWII came around Dunninger, America’s leading mind reader, referred to Goldin’s previous efforts to help the military and now offered his own services as an expert in invisibility.

In 1939 Dunninger said he would gift the American government a means of camouflaging not soldiers and tanks but battleships. The story got quite a bit of publicity for Dunninger and featured a photo of the apparatus which resembled a model ship in a frame. To demonstrate its effectiveness Dunninger turned on some kind of invisible ray and the ship disappeared leaving behind only a thin silver line.

He said that for a few thousand dollars the apparatus could be applied to any military vehicle; ships, planes and even troops. Dunninger explained, ‘All I can say that it is a piece of apparatus about one tenth the size of a plane which can be applied practically instantaneously and renders the plane absolutely invisible at a distance of 50 feet.’ There’s no report that the US government ever took up Dunninger’s idea. If any Dunninger experts out there have any information about the apparatus, please get in touch.

I wish I knew more about Captain ‘Shrapnel’ Smith, a characterful name if ever there was one. I know about him from a report of The Magic Circle’s Third Collectors’ Day in 1978 where Peter Warlock lectured on the use of the mirrors in magic. There he recalled another ‘Invisible Ray,’ the invention of another Hungarian, Mr. Kallay from Budapest. It was promoted by one Captain ‘Shrapnel’ Smith. This was in April of 1939 and Smith invited members of the Circle to a demonstration of the invisibility ray in action at Stationers’ Hall in London. Peter Warlock, Francis White and John Young attended and watched as a table, vase and the roses it contained disappeared from view. The line made by the angled glass on the carpeting did not escape their attention and a letter to the promoters of the event stating that the invisible ray was no more an old illusion redressed went unanswered.

An addiction to invisibility drove H G Wells’ invisible man mad and there’s a certain madness surrounding the stories of invisibility and magicians. Hungarian inventors, army captains, illusionists and mind readers. None of them people you would expect to be at the forefront of science. But all of them absolutely fascinating. My favourite story of invisibility is one that didn’t get any coverage in the newspapers or science magazines. It took place in the office of paranormal investigator Harry Price and is told in his book Confessions of Ghost Hunter (1936). 

Self-proclaimed inventor Sandy MacPherson, a Scotsman from Houndsditch, arrived at Price’s office with a truck load of mirrors and the claim that using them he could make himself invisible. However, on meeting Price he decided that today he would only make his reflection invisible. Price agreed and MacPherson shut himself in a room with his mirrors and proceeded to set them up in secret. After half an hour he called to Harry Price and said he could enter the room.

When Price walked in he was confronted by the spectacle of a semi-circle of mirrors set around a chair. Sandy was there too and asked Harry to switch off the lights for ten seconds and then switch them back on. When the lights came back on Sandy was sitting on the chair. He asked Price to walk slowly up to the chair and see if he can find his reflection in the mirrors. Price did as directed and had to admit that for a moment he was very surprised. ‘…for a fraction of a second I was genuinely startled. Although the end of the room furthest from the set-up was visible in every detail, the reflection of my Caledonian friend from Houndsditch appeared to be missing. The chair was also invisible, whereas normally, of course, both chair and man should have been reflected.’

It took a moment for Price to realise that what he was seeing was a variation of an old magic illusion. MacPherson, proud of his achievement, asked what Price thought of his ‘psychic gift.’ Price’s response was to pick up the chair, move it six inches and its reflection duly appeared in the mirror.

MacPherson had originally asked for a large fee to cover his demonstration of invisibility. After haggling with Price he settled for the cost of transporting the mirrors from Houndsditch. Harry Price described him as ‘one of the most brazen spellbinders’ he had ever met. A term that could be applied to many of magic’s Invisible Men. 

Brazen spellbinder was also a term you could apply to Harry Price. He deftly trod the line between fact and fiction in his career as Britain's leading ghost hunter. His library, which was one of the finest collections of conjuring literature in the UK, is now housed at Senate House at the University of London. 

About five years ago Professor Richard Wiseman (he's a real professor) told me about a grant available from Google's Making & Science Team to put together some kind of science project. I told him that there was an unproduced illusion of Robert Harbin's that might make for a fascinating experiment in optics. Robert Harbin was a magician and designer of illusions though later in his career he became more known to the public via in interest in origami. In the world of magic he is famed for many inventions but chiefly in taking traditional stage illusions and making them work under cabaret conditions. One of the magical effects he had tackled was invisibility.

The illusion I had in mind was called The Transparent Man and was published in Something New in Magic under Harbin's real name of Ned Williams. This was in 1929, five years before Winck gave his exhibition. The effect is that anyone from the audience can stand inside a glass cabinet and be rendered invisible. It was a very interesting idea. The problem was that Harbin had never built a full scale model of the illusion. The model he constructed was only nine inches high. I mentioned to Richard that perhaps this was an opportunity to find out if the trick worked. In a scene that echoed that of Sandy MacPherson and his truckload of mirrors, Richard Wiseman set up a chair in the middle of his lounge, surrounded it with sheets of reflective perspex, turned on a light and, well, you can see what happened in the following video. Enjoy.