French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–1871) was a watchmaker before becoming an innovator in the presentation of magic. His clever use of the technology of the time, dapper dress, and theater-based performances set a new standard for the profession and earned him the moniker “father of modern magic.”
Born in central France to a watchmaker and his wife, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin followed in his father's footsteps, training as a watch and clockmaker after graduating from college. By happenstance Houdin received an instructional manual on magic and was immediately enthralled. Moving to Paris, he joined a community of illusionists, while learning to build the mechanical figurines popular at the time. Opening his own theater with the proceeds from the sale of one of these, he achieved success with a series of trademark illusions, winning critical and popular acclaim.
Robert-Houdin was born Jean Eugène Robert in the French town of Blois on December 7, 1805. His father, Prosper Robert, was a skilled watchmaker, and his mother, Marie-Catherine, died when he was still a child. When Robert-Houdin was 11, his father sent him to study at the University of Orléans, 35 miles away, hoping that he would study law. The young man was mechanically inclined, however, and his interest lay in the intricate machinery of watches and clocks. He chose to follow his father's profession and returned home after graduating in 1823 at the age of 18.
Seeking to meet knowledgeable magicians, RobertHoudin met a local magician by the name of Maous, a podiatrist by profession, who entertained at fairs and parties on the weekends. Maous taught the young enthusiast juggling and the art of classic sleight-of-hand. He impressed on the younger man the necessity for superb digital dexterity, which could only be achieved by incessant practice.
While he pursued his new passion, Robert-Houdin continue to work as a watchmaker by profession, and he now opened a shop in the nearby city of Tours. Along with building watches and clocks, he tinkered with the mechanical toys and figurines popular at the time: singing birds, moving figurines, and other metal objects with inner workings that presented a sort of magic in themselves. He also decided to sharpen his skills as an entertainer by joining an amateur acting troupe. Having gained confidence by performing his magic for family and friends, Robert-Houdin wanted to do more, and in Tours he hired out as a magician for parties, events, and other social gatherings.
At one of these occasions, Robert-Houdin met his future wife, Josephe Cécile Houdin, the daughter of a Parisian clockmaker of high repute. Married in 1830, the couple created the hyphenated Robert-Houdin surname. He now closed his business in Tours, and the couple moved to Paris, where Robert-Houdin was given a job at Cécile's father's wholesale shop.
Robert-Houdin's new father-in-law, Monsieur Jacques François Houdin, was a clockmaker of the old school, handcrafting each piece with delicate precision, and he appreciated his new son-in-law's devotion to craftsmanship. He also encouraged his interest in mechanical toys and more complex animated figurines, called automata. While Houdin managed his retail business, Robert-Houdin could often be found tinkering in the store's workshop.
Living in Paris afforded the young magician plenty of opportunity to study the best prestidigitators in the business, and he adapted many others’ ideas for his own purposes. He was a regular attendee at the performances of Louis Comte (1788–1859), a star performer who had entertained French kings Louis XVIII, Charles X, and Louis-Philippe I, and now owned his own theater, and Jacques Andre Noel Talon (1802–1878; also known as Philippe), whose use of electricity and mechanical figures Robert-Houdin admired. He also visited a Paris magic shop frequented by other amateur and professional magicians, among them Jules de Rovère, who coined the term “prestidigitation” to describe the method of redirecting audience attention in order to create an illusion. The conversation often involved mechanical figurines, and the magicians shared insights into their construction. Robert-Houdin used these to produce cunning devices such as a singing bird, a tightrope dancer, and an automaton that performed a classic magic trick with cups and balls.
The most sophisticated of all his creations was a small automaton that could write and draw. After it caught the interest of King Louis-Philippe, it was presented at the Universal Exhibition of 1844, where it was purchased by P.T. Barnum, the famous circus showman. The 7,000 francs Barnum paid for this mechanical marvel would enable Robert-Houdin to take the next step in his magical career.
In a tragic turn of events, Robert-Houdin's beloved wife died after a lengthy illness in 1843, leaving him with their three children. Two years later, he remarried, and again moved forward with plans for a magical theater. With the funds from Barnum, plus a grant from a wealthy patron, he rented several rooms in the Palais Royale, an historic building once owned by Cardinal Richelieu, and installed an elegant, 200-seat theater. Heavy draperies trimmed in gold trim and other signs of opulence set the stage, and Robert-Houdin became its centerpiece in his well-cut suit. His show was called “Soirées Fantasiques,” and it debuted on July 3, 1845.
To make his “Soirées Fantasiques,” Robert-Houdin realized that he needed more than magic acts and mechanical marvels. He found his show stopper in a mind-reading act involving his son Emile, a blindfold, and the participation of a willing audience. In the routine called “Second Sight,” Emile sat blindfolded on the stage, while Robert-Houdin stood in the audience, holding up various objects, which the boy mysteriously and correctly identified. While other magicians had developed a similar trick involving verbal codes conveyed between magician and subject, RobertHoudin's act allowed audience members to bring unusual items and hold them up in silence as the blindfolded Emile identified them. The secret to the routine involved an unseen stage hand, an electromagnet bolted to the stage under Emile's foot, and Morse code. Audiences were baffled and delighted by the act and Robert-Houdin and crew carried it off flawlessly, night after night.
More crowd-pleasing illusions followed: “The Ethereal Suspension,” in which Emile appeared atone point to hang in midair; “The Marvelous Orange Tree,” in which a series of items seemingly disappeared into one another, producing a vial of liquid that caused a fruitless orange tree to blossom and bear fruit; and his most remarkable illusion, “The Light and Heavy Chest,” in which a small wooden box became too heavy to lift, even by the strongest person in the audience.
The Palais Royale quickly became a destination for magic aficionados. In addition, Paris's social elite became regulars, and in 1847, even the king and his entourage attended a performance. As Robert-Houdin's fame spread, he also toured Europe and Britain, amazing audiences, performing for royalty, and remaining a sensation until his retirement in 1855, just ten years after opening the Palais Royale.
Although Robert-Houdin moved to a farm near his hometown of Blois, one last adventure awaited. In 1856 the French government requested his help with a situation in Algeria, then a French colony. Local shamans of the Marabout tribe were inciting rebellion with demonstrations of magic such as fire walking and snake charming, powers their French colonizers could not match. Robert-Houdin was sent to perform throughout the area, demonstrating acts involving appearing and disappearing objects and ending with the “Light and Heavy Chest” routine, which he augmented. In his final presentation to Marabout chiefs, he caught a marked bullet, shot by one of the chiefs, with his teeth. The tribe renewed its loyalty to the French and were also assured that no sorcery had been involved in Robert-Houdin's act.
After retiring to his farm, Robert-Houdin wrote a memoir as well as several books on the art of magic. His peace was shattered in July of 1879 when reaction to a unified German state sparked the Franco-Prussian War. As the fighting aproached Blois, Robert-Houdin and his family hid in a cave near his property; at the same time, his son was mortally wounded in a distant battle. After the war ended in May 1871, he contracted pneumonia, dying a month later, at Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt, France, on June 13, 1871, He was 65.
Because Robert-Houdin had brought together so many elements of what has come to be classical conjuring—the subtle use of technology, modern attire, and a sophisticated theatrical performance—he has become known as the “father of modern magic.” A Hungarian-born American magician named Erik “Harry” Weisz honored Robert-Houdin's legacy by take the stage name Houdini in his honor.
Robert-Houdin, Jean Eugène, Memoirs, Chapman & Hall, 1859.
History, February-March 2013, Chuck Lyons, “Robert-Houdin: Magician Extraordinaire,” p. 8.