Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

was opened in successive instalments to the scrutiny of the spectators. The first player was a Polish patriot, Worousky, who had lost both legs in a campaign; as he was furnished with artificial limbs when in public, his appearance, together with the fact that no dwarf or child travelled in Kempelen’s company, dispelled the suspicion that any person could be employed inside the machine. This automaton, which made more than one tour to the capitals and courts of Europe, and was owned for a short time by Napoleon I., was exhibited by Mälzel after the death of Kempelen in 1819, and ultimately perished in a fire at Philadelphia in 1854. A revival of the trick appeared soon afterwards in Hooper’s “Ajeeb,” shown at the Sydenham Crystal Palace and elsewhere. A chess-playing figure, “Mephisto,” designed by Gumpel, was also exhibited. No space existed for the accommodation of a living player within; but, as there was no attempt at isolating the apparatus from mechanical communication through the carpet or the floor, there was nothing to preclude the moving arm and gripping finger and thumb of the figure from being worked by any convenient connexion of threads, wires, rods and levers. In 1875 Maskelyne and Cooke produced at the Egyptian Hall, in London, an automaton whist-player, “Psycho,” which, from the manner in which it was placed upon the stage, appeared to be perfectly isolated from any mechanical communication from without; there was no room within for the concealment of a living player by aid of any optical or other illusion, and yet the free motions of both arms, especially of the right arm and hand in finding any card, taking hold of it, and raising it or lowering it to any position and at any speed as demanded by the audience, indicated that the actions were directed from without. The arm had all the complicated movements necessary for chess or draught playing; and “Psycho” calculated any sum up to a total of 99,000,000. A still more original automaton was Maskelyne’s figure “Zoe,” constructed in 1877, which wrote and drew pictures at dictation of the audience. “Zoe,” a nearly life-size but very light doll, sat loose upon a cushioned skeleton-stand, of which the solid feet of the plinth rested upon a thick plate of clear glass laid upon the floorcloth or carpet of the stage. “Psycho,” a smaller oriental figure, sitting cross-legged on a box, was supported by a single glass cylinder of clear glass, which, as originally exhibited, stood upon the carpet of the stage, but was afterwards set loose upon a small stool, having solid wood feet.

That a mysterious and apparently elaborate mechanical movement may, after all, possess the utmost simplicity is illustrated by the familiar conjuring trick known as “rising cards.” Four cards having been chosen by the audience and returned to the pack, this is placed end upwards in a glass goblet, or in a thin case not deep enough to hide the pack, upon the top of a decanter or upon a stick. At command, the cards rise, one at a time, out of the pack; one rises part of the way and sinks back again; one rises quickly or slowly as directed; one comes out feet first, and, on being put back, rises head upwards like the others; and one dances in time to music, and finally jumps out of the pack. At the conclusion there remain only the goblet or the case and the cards, subject to the minutest examination of any one from the audience, without a trace of moving mechanism visible. This was one of the chief jeux of Louis Christian Comte, the French conjuror and ventriloquist, at the end of the 18th century, and in varied forms has been popular to the present day. Probably it was suggested by the earlier device of the golden head dancing in a glass tumbler, which is described in The Conjuror Unmasked (1790). Several crown pieces were put in the glass, a small gilded head above them, and a plate or other flat cover laid upon the mouth of the glass; yet the head thus isolated jumped inside the glass so as to count numbers and answer questions. The secret communicator of motion was a fine silk thread attached to the head and passing through a tiny notch cut in the lip of the glass, and so to a confederate who pulls it. In the case of the rising cards the whole of the movements are effected by arranging a single silk thread in the previously prepared pack, passing over some cards and under others, and led behind the decanter or other support to the stage and thence to the confederate. As this infinitely simple mechanical agent is drawn altogether out of the pack after the last card has risen, literally no trace remains of any means of communicating motion to the cards.

Oriental ingenuity, which furnished the original idea of the ethereal suspension trick, contributed the Chinese rings introduced into England in 1834; also the Chinese feat of producing a bowl of water with gold-fish out of a shawl, first seen in England in 1845, and the Indian rope-tying and sack feats upon which the American brothers Davenport founded a distinct order of performances in 1859. Their quick escape from rope bonds in which they were tied by representatives of the audience, the instantaneous removal of their coats in a dark séance, leaving themselves still bound, and their various other so-called “phenomena” were exposed and imitated by Maskelyne, who, in 1860, greatly surpassed any feats which they had accomplished. He proceeded to exhibit himself floating in the air, to show “materialized spirit forms,” and to present a succession of wonders of the spirit mediums in novel performances. One of Maskelyne’s cleverest inventions was the box which he constructed in 1860; it closely fitted when he packed himself in a cramped position within; it was enclosed in a canvas wrapper, corded with any length and complicated meshing of rope, and the knot sealed, yet his escape was effected in seven seconds. Taking more time, he performed the converse of these operations except the sealing. Provided with the wrapper and the open box, himself standing outside,he drew a curtain before him to conceal the modusoperandi, and in a few minutes was found in the box, which, though so small as to permit no limb to be moved more than a few inches, he nevertheless wrapped and corded as exactly as if he had operated from the outside.

Modern conjuring has given rise to many interesting developments, but none perhaps attracted a larger share of public attention than the legal battle in the last years of the century over this box-trick. The case had a special interest in England, from the fact that it was the only one in which a trick had ever occupied the attention of the House of Lords. The litigation arose in this way. Mr Maskelyne had been in the habit of offering a considerable reward to any one who could produce a correct imitation of his box-trick. The offer was a direct challenge to imitators, and was intended to show—as nothing else could have done—that the tricks sold and exhibited as “correct imitations” were not what they professed to be. Two amateur mechanicians, having made or procured a box externally resembling Mr Maskelyne’s, gave a private performance before a few friends, and then claimed the reward. Mr Maskelyne refused to pay, his contention being that hundreds of people had already escaped from locked and corded boxes resembling his in appearance. Indeed, it was for that very reason that he had been compelled to make the offer. The claimants then brought an action to recover £500—the amount offered. Mr Maskelyne produced his box in court, and challenged the plaintiffs to expose the secret, contending that they could not possibly imitate correctly a trick of which they did not know the secret. Their point, however, was that they had nothing to do with the secret, and that a box-trick was not a trick-box. The jury, being unable to decide whether a mechanical trick is a piece of mechanism or the effect it produces, could not agree, and were discharged. In a second trial, the jury, after much deliberation, found for the plaintiffs. Mr Maskelyne appealed against the verdict. His appeal occupied the court for three days, and was dismissed. Finally he carried the case to the House of Lords, and lost it. The majority of the law lords, while fully admitting that the secret had never been discovered, were of opinion that the trick had been correctly “imitated.” To people dealing with mechanical devices this decision is bound to appear not a little curious. A mechanical trick is a mechanical invention, and when we have two absolutely different inventions, although they may produce more or less similar results, one is by no means an imitation of the other—to say nothing of a “correct imitation.” Applied to inventions generally, such a ruling would produce disastrous results.

To those interested in magic, however, one effect of the