The Wrong Books and the Father of Modern Magic

bday 12-6 robert-houdin magician portrait I’m always fascinated by the ways that books can change a person’s life. But the particular story of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, is perhaps the most magical tale …one that began with the wrong book.

In the mid-1820s, young Jean saved up to buy a copy of a two-volume set of books on clockmaking called Traité de l’horlogerie, or Treatise on Clockmaking, written by Ferdinand Berthoud.The bookseller had put the books off to the side for Jean. He reached up to the shelf and grabbed the books. He wrapped the two volumes and handed them to the young aspiring clockmaker.

bday 12-6 houdin Suspension-ethereenne-de-Robert-Houdin-Maison-de-la-MagieWhen Jean got home and opened the wrapping, instead of the Berthoud books, what appeared before his eyes was a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Instead of returning the books, his curiosity got the best of him. From those crude volumes, he learned the rudiments of magic. (From Wikipedia)

While the books showed the secrets behind the magic tricks, they didn’t lay out all the particulars of ‘how-to’ accomplish them, so Houdin sought out lessons from a local amateur magician. As he honed his dexterity and stagecraft, Houdin’s path to becoming a pioneer in magical circles was set.

As his profile as a conjuror rose, Houdin brought magic off the street and out from festivals and moved it indoors.  He bought and refitted a small theatre specifically to showcase magic – both his performances and other mystical spectaculars. It became a mecca for all the greatest magicians of that era. NOTE: This same theatre was purchased after Houdin’s death by George Melies, one of the greatest innovators of film,  to show his first  moving pictures at the dawn of movie-making. Houdin is also credited with establishing a formality for stage magicians, always appearing in dress clothing. His influence is perhaps why we now imagine traditional magicians in top hats and tail coats.

bday 12-6 Magician robert houdin theatre magic

Robert-Houdin’s accidental book mix-up opened a door he may never have stepped through otherwise. Might he have been famed and remembered as a clockmaker? Perhaps. He built some pretty amazing automatons later – combining his interest in mechanics, theatre and magic. But it’s his vision, innovation and legacy as a magician that ensured his fame for centuries to come.

What a brilliant beginning! A bookseller’s mistake planted the seeds of Robert-Houdin’s legacy as the “Father of Modern Magic”.  The next time I end up with the ‘wrong’ book on hold at the bookstore or library, I think I’m going to take some time and give it a chance. An unwanted book might just open the door to new and unexpected adventures.


The Orange Tree | Automaton by Robert-Houdin

The Orange Tree | Automaton by Robert-Houdin