BBC News

Houdini and the history of magic

Humans have always been fascinated by magic. We all live by the same physical rules of the universe, and when someone breaks them we watch open-mouthed, stunned into silence.

Mike Caveney is a professional magician and co-author of Taschen Books's Magic: 1400s-1950s, in which he uses photographs and illustrations to show how spirit invokers, sleight of hand experts and illusionists have entertained us for centuries.

He says magicians have adapted their craft to their environment as performances have shifted from the streets to the great Vaudeville theatres and on to TV and YouTube.

Caveney told the BBC that while modern magicians may not be superstars on the scale of Harry Houdini or Carter the Great, they are still creating new stunts and tricks that leave audiences asking "How did they do that?"

Produced by the BBC's Bill McKenna and Sune Engel Rasmussen

Video courtesy of British Pathe

Images courtesy Mike Caveney's Egyptian Hall Museum; George and Sandy Daily Collection; Christian Fechner Collection and The Library of Congress

Strobridge Lithograph Co. poster of Harry Houdini's famousWater Torture Cell, 1916. Copyright:George and Sandy Daily Collection

Spirit photograph of the Dutch magician E. Chambly, ca. 1890. Copyright:Chrisitan Fechner Collection

Photograph of the Mexican magician Professor Herrmann sawing alady in half, 1923. Copyright:Mike Caveney's Egyptian Hall Museum

Strobridge Lithograph Co. poster of famous American magicianHoward Thurston, 1915.Copyright:The Library of Congress