The Oldest Trick in the Book

OK, one of the oldest.

While most people think of magic as a form of variety entertainment specializing in the presentation of seeming impossibilities with the intention of conveying a sense of wonder and awe to the engaged public, the magician’s craft has not always been employed solely for the creation of agreeable illusions with the goal of entertainment or diversion. We are, of course, aware that con men and con artists expertly employ sleight of hand in order to swindle their marks from their money. Equally, we are not surprised to learn that some fraudulent psychics employ secret means of gaining information in order to dupe their sitters. But few are aware just how far back in history the magician’s craft been employed to deceive beyond the ends of entertainment; one of the oldest magic tricks might surprise you.


The oldest magic trick?

Pneumatica is a book of inventions attributed to Heron of Alexandria (10-70 CE)¹. Heron was the inventor of the steam engine—using it to power a small toy. He also invented the first vending machine. His amazing tome reveals mechanical wonders that many today would still find breathtaking. Many of the “tricks” described in Pneumatica were built into temples and used to convince the masses that gods were present. Temple doors open by supernatural hands. Statues poured wine when commanded. One could even hear the hisses of mystical beings whispering in mysterious tongues as if they were standing beside you.

Among magicians, perhaps the most celebrated of these illusions is Heron’s Horse. The horse was a statue presented next to a figure of a swordsman. Upon operation, the mechanical swordsman would turn and cleave a solid sword through the neck of this wondrous beast. The horse’s head would somehow remain safely in place. As a kicker, when presented with water, the mechanical horse would drink happily from the vessel. (In the early 1900’s a small toy was made based on the mechanical principle which allows for the penetration of the sword.)

James Olsen of Owen Magic Supreme in Asuza, California, took upon himself the daunting task of recreating Heron’s Horse. This model, without the swordsman, sits atop a beautiful ebony base. This time the performer, bearing the sword, cleaves through the neck. Not only will the horse drink water from a dish as in the original; but, for comedic effect, he proceeds to pass the water, in the traditional manner. Only a handful of the Owen model horses were cast. One is in the collection of Richard Garriott and was featured in a Martha Stewart Show segment on automata.

A recent television series did an episode on some of Heron’s creations. See it here:

Brad Henderson made a special appearance at the world’s first convention for automata and automata enthusiasts. Collectors, historians, artists and artisans from all over the world came to Morristown, NJ, to share a weekend exploring their passions for automata and mechanical art. Brad performed sleight of hand magic for the opening night reception at the Morris Museum which features the legendary Guinness Collection of Automata.

For more information on the automata convention, visit: automatacon.org
You can read a translation of Heron’s book, Pneumatica here.

¹Sometimes referred to as Hero of Alexandria.

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