Saturday, May 26, 2012

Magic, Science and the Regency Era

 Please welcome our first guest writer, Professor D.R. Schreiber, "The Historical Conjurer"
Chevalier Joseph Pinetti 1750-1800

In the late 18th and early 19th Century, science, industry, technology and innovations were on the move.  It was the discoveries of many men from the age of Enlightenment that lead to these early ideas that planted the seed for the industrial revolution.  The relatively fast pace of advancements made it challenging for even the most educated of gentleman to stay attune.  

The gentlemen conjurer  (magicians) of the Regency era took advantage of this fact.  Often during a demonstration or lecture, a “Professor of Natural Philosophy,” as many conjurers would call themselves, would display what he claimed to be his experiments into science.  Most of the gentleman in the audience would have read about these types of advancements in the newspaper, but had yet to behold them in person.  It was only imagined what they might look like.  So too the conjurer most likely had little or no scientific knowledge.  Instead, his imagination would recreate the experiment using the trickery or deception necessary to make the experiment work correctly.

As a conjurer myself, I attempt to evoke the style, emotion, and spirit of the late 18th and early 19th century by asking the question, "What would a Regency gentleman have believed to be possible?"  With the recent harnessing of lightning, would they be led to believe that man can control the weather, or perhaps that lightning can be directed at man’s own will?  The ideas and theories of Dr. Franz Mesmer led many to believe that mind control was just a step away.  With simple concentration, a person could be made to perform the wishes of the mind controller.  The development of steam power helped to forge the concept that man could move anything with the aid of a machine.

It only took the slight imagination of a conjurer to create a way to make these discoveries come true.  These creations filled the scientific lecture halls with all sorts of apparatus and experiments, many no more than “bells and whistles” meant to hide the actual workings of the illusion.  Gentlemen and ladies alike flocked to places like the Royal Institute to view first-hand these performances of magic disguised as demonstrations of science.

While some might argue that these conjurers were deceptive manipulators, it could be argued that their demonstrations helped to move forward scientific exploration by feeding the public’s fascination for these scientific pursuits.  One example is the use of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas.  The gas was isolated in 1772, but was first demonstrated to the public in 1801 as a humorous display of a scientific discovery.  Soon, many conjurers incorporated a laughing gas performance into their act.  It was during one of these conjuring performances that an audience member, a dentist, finally imagined an actual medical use for nitrous oxide, and the next day he performed the first painless tooth extraction with the use of the gas.  If not for the inventiveness of these conjurers, the true power of nitrous oxide would not have been discovered.

One can only imagine what other innovations or developments of science and industry would have lay untouched or unmoved, if it were not for these gentle conjurers.

Your Humble Servant,

Prof. D.R. Schreiber.

Resources & Further Reading:

 "The Great Illusionists" by Edwin A. Dawes. Published by Chartwell Books in 1979.
"Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic" by Simon During. Published by Harvard University Press in 2002.
"The Illustrated History of Magic" by Milbourne and Maurine Christopher. Published by Carroll & Graff in 2006
"Chevalier Pinetti - Conjurer" By Henry Ridgley Evans.  Published in "The Open Court" magazine in 1903.
"Memoirs of Robert-Houdin" by Jean Eugene Robert Houdin.  Published by George G. Evans in 1859.
"The Lives of the Conjurers" by Thomas Frost. Published by Tinsley Brothers in 1876.
"Leaves from Conjurers Scarp Books" by HJ Burlingame.  PUblished by Donohue, Henneberry and Company in 1891.

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