Friday, August 20, 2021

CARDOPOLIS ISSUE 20 - OUT NOW

 


Cardopolis Issue 20 is available now. It is free and you can subscribe here. Inside you'll find Bob Ostin's Paper Prison, a magician's view of a card cheating move and a different take on Paul Curry's Out of this World.




Wednesday, June 30, 2021

THE MAGNIFICENT CHARLES CARTS




Magicians interested in stacked deck work might have heard of Charles Carts. He was a contemporary of Chan Canasta, a successful performer who made a reputation with an act based around a deck of cards. Jeff Busby, in reviewing my book Chan Canasta: A Remarkable Man (2000), implied that Canasta might have been inspired by Charles Carts’ work. However, I’ve not found any evidence that the two met or knew of each other before they established their careers.

According to press reports, Carts was born in Brussels but spent most of his early life in Paris where he studied engineering. He claimed to have been part of the French Underground during WWII. Chan Canasta meanwhile served with the RAF in Greece and other countries before coming to England in 1947.

Carts had always been interested in magic but got a taste for performing when another magician had to drop out of a show at a Parisian cafĂ©. Carts took his place, and this led to hobby becoming a profession. In 1948 he was working at ‘Franco-American galas and fetes' (Variety, July 7, 1948) and a year later, possibly as a result of those shows, he travelled to America where he was to build a successful life as a club and cabaret performer. Early reviews were promising:

With the approach of summer, hostelry ops here are opening their purses, with improved shows the result. Charlie Carts, young, handsome Parisian conjurer, has great possibilities but needs some major renovation. Carts’ turn is a card manipulation and memory combination that should hit much better than it does. He allows diners to take various size stacks from a deck of cards and tells them every card they’re holding. His closer should be a show stopper. He splits a deck into seven parts, putting one part in each of seven pockets, from which diners take cards. He tells payees what they’re holding. Major handicap is his endless monotone of descriptive prattle. He needs to slow down and add laugh lines. His card manipulation encore, while appreciated by a fellow magician, is too subtle as a closing piece.

In 1950, Carts married American showgirl Carolyn Lockwood. We can track many of Carts’ bookings at clubs, hotels and casinos throughout America and Canada via the press archives. Most praised the novelty of a card-only act. It was a ‘new twist’ they said, citing Carts' ability to have lots of cards selected and to be able to name every one of them. They also noted his ‘comedy patter.’ ‘He has a charming manner, mixing up his not so fractured English and his native Gallic lingo for strong appeal. He’s well suited for a class room like the Cotillion,’ said one review of his 1954 appearance at the Pierre Hotel, New York. He also made some television appearances including one on February 14th, 1953, with former bootlegger Sherman Billingsley who had a television show fashioned after his own Stork Club in Manhattan.



Both Carts and Canasta had acts that depended on a stacked deck. Another thing they had in common was that their acts worked best in intimate venues, which is why television worked so well for Canasta. At the beginning of Carts’ American tour reviewers applauded his act but wondered if it had club appeal, saying:

Charles Carts, French card manipulator, is a very clever handsome lad. His work, however, isn’t geared for mass visual appeal. Basically he’s a close worker using the take-a-card-any-card system. People up close can be very interested. Those even a row away can’t see what he’s doing. As a table worker he should do quite good (Billboard, Feb 26, 1949).

Carts overcame that scepticism but it never disappeared entirely. Several years later, after a successful career, someone would venture an opinion that card tricks were too small for club work, one reviewer saying, ‘Much of the material is a total loss to others in the audience unless the management provides telescopes.’ 

Carts did travel to the UK in 1955 and made an appearance on the British television show It’s Magic. Abracadabra magazine (Dec 10, 1955) reviewed the show. This was the first time British magicians had seen Carts’ work:

Unquestioned star of last Friday’s It’s Magic show was French-American artist, Charles Carts. With a deck of cards, one Jumbo and one miniature, he did a high-speed revelation routine and packed it full with mystery and fun. His engaging personality emerged in the round from the little box in the corner.

Card man Gus Southall, reviewing the same show in The Budget (January 1956) said:

Charles Carts whose skilful card work has been highly praised in American journals, journied (sic) at great inconvenience from his native France, where he was on holiday, to make an appearance in the programme. Card artists can learn much from his brisk direct presentation of painless card magic. His flawless technique with a stacked deck was a joy to witness particularly his “any-card-named-found-at-any-position” and “everywhere and nowhere” with its slightly different climax.

Helping us understand the difference between Carts’ work and that of Canasta is a detailed account of Carts’ act written by Stewart James in a letter to Francis Haxton (Oct 18th, 1955). James saw Carts perform on television. Carts had replaced Paul Le Paul on the American It’s Magic show (September 3rd, 1955 as far as I can make out) and, as far as James was concerned, was the superior performer. James, who spelled Carts as Cartes, recalled the act as follows:

Worked in lounge suit. Stated during introductory remarks that he would use a complete deck of 52 cards. To prove that there were 52, without delaying his presentation by passing the cards around to be examined and counted, he would like to have anyone name any card. Next they were requested to choose either “top” or “bottom”. Suppose they said Seven of Diamonds and TOP. Cartes cut the deck and revealed the Seven of Diamonds on TOP of the deck. Repeated five or six times.

CC apparently shuffles cards. Three members of audience are asked to think of one card each. CC divides deck in SEVEN groups. They are distributed in various pockets. Right trouser pocket – inside left coat pocket, inside right coat pocket – handkerchief pocket – left trouser pocket – right coat pocket and left coat pocket. Thought of cards are named one at a time. CC produces them one at a time from the proper pocket.

Here again he departed from the usual presentation of the Cards From Pockets as he did with the Instanto Pack. When the first member of the audience thinks of a card, CC concentrates and appears to try and read his mind. At last, by his appearance, once feels that he is confident that he has been successful. This bit of business is repeated with the other two “thinkers” but it is worked briskly and does not slow down the act.

BEFORE placing each packet of cards in his pocket, CC glances at the faces briefly. His explanation is that he could not possible remember all the cards, their position in the packet and in which pocket they are placed. He is ONLY remembering the position of three cards which have been merely thought of and have not (as yet) been named aloud.

Two volunteers are requested to come forward. CC still has the cards distributed in his pockets. Including the three cards he produced as they were returned to the pocket whence they came after being displayed for verification.

One volunteer removes the cards from CC’s right coat pocket. Other volunteer takes the cards from left coat pocket. Volunteers arrange the cards in their hands according to suits. CC names all the cards in each hand.

There is a slight variation in the way he does this. Each card is named in the first group one at a time. For the second group, CC names a suit, the number of cards in that suit in the group and lastly the values of the cards of that suit.

Three spectators each select a card from the assembled deck. They are returned and deck shuffled by a member of the audience. CC places deck in his inside right coat pocket. First spectator thinks of his card. CC quickly produces one with back to audience. Spectator names his card. Card is reversed and revealed to be the one named.

CC apparently has difficulty locating second spectator’s card. CC says spectator has not been thinking very strongly of his card but it is the Ace of Spades. CC produces a half-size Ace of Spades.

CC says it is extremely easy to produce the card of which the third spectator is thinking. CC says it is the Queen of Hearts – which spectator verifies – and that the selector is thinking of it very strongly. He then produced a GIANT Queen of Hearts.

A walk on card act with a single basic theme. Except for the prop cards to supply the “light touch” climax, absolutely nothing is used except the deck and there appears to be only one.

Francis Haxton was very taken with Stewart James’ description of Carts’ act and even mused upon the possibility of constructing something like it himself, a walk on act based around a single magical theme. Ironically, when Carts’ appeared on British television just a month or so later, Haxton missed the show. He did, however, say to James that it reminded him of Chan Canasta’s work. James wrote back:

You will probably think I am quibbling but I consider a stacked deck a whole system of card magic and NOT a single effect. But it does bring to mind how different two acts can be although based on the same basic theme.. just compare Cartes routine with that of Arthur Lloyd. And I venture to say that I would enjoy Cartes turn much more than AL’s regardless of the much greater preparation and practice required for AL’s.

It is easy to see how comparisons can be made between Chan Canasta and Charles Carts, even the names are similar. But I agree with Stewart James and believe Carts and Canasta were very different performers. Their methods weren’t new. Both owed a huge debt to Si Stebbins, who performed similar effects for many years and half a century earlier. But Carts’ and Canasta’s interpretation of those effects, via their very different personalities and presentations is what made them stand out from their peers. To quote a famous song, it ain't what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

Special thank you to the Ask Alexander search engine at Conjuring Arts for access to the Stewart James & Francis Haxton archive. Also to Magicana who also host this fascinating archive of correspondence.





Friday, May 07, 2021

CARDOPOLIS NEWSLETTER 17


Cardopolis Newsletter 17 is now available. This month you'll find tricks involving spies, cupid, tribes and a colour change. Subscribe at Cardopolis Newsletter.



Monday, January 11, 2021

THE FIRST SAWING A WOMAN IN TWO?



There has been a lot of debate about who created the first Sawing Through a Woman illusion. And it has now been 100 years since P T Selbit debuted his version in January of 1921.  The illusion was a sensation but this didn't stop some magicians questioning the originality of the effect. Hadn’t Robert-Houdin mentioned such an illusion in his memoirs back in 1868?  Didn’t the Hanlon Brothers do the trick at the Follies Bergere in 1878? Robert-Houdin's trick was a product of his imagination and while the Hanlon Brothers did patent a dismemberment illusion in 1890, I don't think anyone has evidence that they performed what we would categorise as a sawing illusion.

None of the discussion, much of which seems to be mischievous rather than analytical, unearthed a sawing illusion that predated Selbit’s. And even if they had, it would not detract from the fact that it was Selbit’s invention, and his clever publicity, that made the sawing illusion one of magic’s most iconic feats.

However, one piece of information that seems to have been forgotten was unearthed by Houdini. He published a very interesting article in the M.U.M. magazine for September 1921 (Vol 11 No 3). Houdini had in his collection a playbill for a Prof Hengler and a show at the Winchester Music Hall in London. It advertised an effect titled ‘Sawing a Lady in Two.’


The playbill is undated but Houdini estimated it to be from the early 1800s. No one seems to have looked into Houdini’s playbill so I decided to see what I could find out via the various newspaper databases that are now available.

Dr Eric Colleary, Cline Curator of Theater and Performing arts at the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Austin, Texas, emailed to say that the actual poster is in their collection. With the permission of the Harry Ransom Center the poster is reproduced here. Incidentally, they have some wonderful Houdini ephemera available for viewing on the department website including some of Houdini's scrapbooks.

Image courtesy of The Harry Ransom Center
the University of Austin, Texas

The playbill displays the proprietor of Winchester Music Hall as R Preece. The first thing I learned was that Preece had given up his management of the Winchester Music Hall by March 1878. Which means the playbill is earlier than Houdini's estimate.

Searching for Hengler  showed that Professor Hengler was Alfred Hengler. I'd assumed he was from the famous Hengler circus family but this is an ongoing enquiry.

According to John Stewart's book The Acrobat (2012), Alfred Hengler was the brother of Charles Hengler, the man who founded Hengler's Grand Cirque. The London Palladium is built on the former site of Hengler’s Grand Cirque which had been there since 1871. I haven't done a deep dive but I haven't seen anything to show that the Hengler family had any interest in magic. They were equestrian acrobrats. And there are reports that one of the family named Alfred Hugh Hengler died in 1842 after a fall from a horse. Yet there is an Alfred Hengler still in the circus business in the 1880s. Maybe someone who is familiar with the Hengler dynasty can provide some clarity.

Chris Woodward referred me to the books by John Martin Turner on the history of circus. His papers are at the National Circus and Fairground Archive. Chris found what appears to be a reference to a magician called Alfred Charles Hengler in volume 2 of Turner's Victorian Era - The Performers: volume 2. Perhaps this is our guy. Chris also sent along an advertisement for the opening of Hengler's Cirque in 1871:



Alfred Hengler was a magician who had been performing since the mid 1860s. Press advertisements and reviews show that he was good at his job and noted for his sleight of hand, instantaneous growth of flowers, and the Indian Basket Trick.

But in 1873 he advertised a new routine, ‘Cutting a Lady in Two.’  The first advert I’ve found appeared in the Hampshire Telegraph and Sussex Chronicle on 1st February 1873 for a performance on 3rd February at the South of England Music Hall, St Mary’s Street, Portsmouth

'MR ALFRED HENGLER, in his new Grand Magical Illusion Every Evening, Cutting a Lady in Two – A Feat never attempted before. All should see this wonderful illusion.'


The South of England Music Hall was no small town theatre. It was built to rival London theatres and seated 2,000 people. It was said to be Hengler’s first appearance at the venue. He had been performing there in January but the illusion is not mentioned until February after which it makes appearances in several small advertisements.

A brief note in the same newspaper on 15th February says:

'SOUTH OF ENGLAND MUSIC HALL – The principal attraction at this popular place of entertainment are the wonderful feats of Mr. Alfred Hengler, whose crowning illusion is that in which he appears to cut a lady in two.'

A final advert, on 19th February, advertises the ‘last six nights’ of appearances by Alfred Hengler.

It is possible that these performances are the provincial shows mentioned in the playbill. I can’t find any other shows. More importantly, I haven’t found any reports of Hengler appearing at The Winchester Music Hall in May 1873 though De Castro’s acrobatic troupe, also mentioned on that playbill, did.

At the moment we have no idea what the trick looked like. The title ‘Sawing a Lady in Two,’ appears on the London playbill but not during the performances in Portsmouth. More material might come to light as more newspapers are digitised. New material is being digitised all the time and some archives will even alert you when new items for keywords you have already searched for have been added to the database.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the invention of Selbit's illusion, a fact that will be celebrated by a broadcast from The Magic Circle. You can read more about that here:

Finally, in his 1921 article, Houdini wrote, 'we must hand Prof. Hengler the palm for at least inventing it before present day disputants. Perhaps Houdini was right.

FURTHER NOTES

Since I uploaded this post yesterday a couple of notes have come in. Richard Wiseman pointed out that the Chinese method of execution supposedly involved being sawn vertically down the body not across the midriff. Searching for reports of that in the British Newspaper Archive I found an article from 1870 of a visit to a sort of wax museum in Canton that was circulated in several newspapers (Strange Sights In Canton - The Clare Journal 14th July 1870). The method of execution, of being sawn while held between two planks, is briefly mentioned there. It's pure speculation but maybe an article of this sort inspired Hengler's illusion. Wikipedia has a page on the gruesome business of death by sawing.

Bill Mullins emailed to say that the date on the playbill is Monday 12th May. The only days on which the 12th of May falls on a Monday around that time are 1861, 1873 and 1878. Given what we know I think this confirms that the playbill is from 1873.

LENGTHWISE SAWING

Talking of the lengthwise sawing, I remembered that Billy McComb had such an idea in his book McComb's Magic 25 Years Wiser. He wasn't the first but in the book he mentioned a competition that Dunninger ran in Scientific American in the 1920s. Billy had misremembered the name of the magazine, it was actually Science and Invention

Dunninger had a regular magic column in Science and Invention where, to the consternation of some, he explained many tricks. In the September 1929 issue he ran a reader competition to devise a method for a lengthwise sawing illusion. First prize was $100.

The issue has a vivid cover illustration of Dunninger performing the effect which he described in great detail saying that it was a trick he had intended to perform in vaudeville and that it had never been done before. 

The magazine reported that they received more 10,000 entries to the competition. In the March 1930 issue they announced the winner, a Mr A. G. Illich, and published his method which, I have to say, was not half as exciting as the effect. But then isn't that often the way?












 



Saturday, October 10, 2020

CARDOPOLIS NEWSLETTER NUMBER 9

 


The latest issue of the Cardopolis Newsletter is now available. In 2016 Laura London debuted her show Cheat at the Edinburgh Festival. She kept a journal of the ups and downs of the production and now shares it with readers of Cardopolis.

If you've ever wondered what it would be like to put on a magic show at the Edinburgh Festival then this is well worth reading. A very honest diary of one of the most important months in the showbiz calendar.

The show Cheat is now a highly successful part of Laura's repertoire. This is how it began. You can subscribe to the Cardopolis Newsletter here. And you'll find the CardopolisMagic Instagram account here.


Monday, July 06, 2020

Cardopolis Newsletter & Instagram



New Additions to Cardopolis

Cardopolis now has a Newsletter. It contains videos of various tricks, routines and ideas and you can subscribe at Cardopolis Newsletter

And you'll find the new CardopolisMagic Instagram account at CardopolisMagic

Articles on magic will also continue to appear on this blog.

Anyone interested in magic is welcome.



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.