Science of jugglery and its legendary Hungarian masters: Rodolfo and Houdini

Magicians and illusionists exploit the deficiencies of human thinking and perception with their tricks, creating the illusion of supernatural skills. Although wizardry cannot be learnt by practising magic tricks, certain dangerous spectacles, for example escaping, allow you to develop such amazing attributions like bravery or the ability of overcoming panic in extremely stressful situations.

Neglecting details

75_60_b.jpgThe fact that people tend to believe illusions created by magicians does not depend on their professionalism only, but also on the defects of your way of thinking. According to neuroscientists’ estimations, 11 million bits of information arrive in the human brain every second. In order to manage this amount, your brain neglects the details and searches for familiar patterns in them. This makes you capable of filtering out the essence, and reacting quickly to the events in your environment. The “side effect” of this useful system is that sometimes, you do not notice certain things or you fancy familiar patterns where there are not any. For example illusions reminding you of faces or other forms in clouds.

Pretence might mislead you in the “enchanted” room (too)

Illzi_a_termszetben_Rsz1_31_b.jpgA good example to see how your own experiences and inner expectations can mislead you when it is about understanding unknown things is Ames’ distorted room. When looking into a room like that, you can see two similar-sized persons as if they were a giant and a dwarf. The illusion is due to the forming of the room: its walls are not orthogonal and its floor and ceiling are not horizontal either. If you interpret what you see, you are wrong typically, because not the persons’ sizes are different actually but the room is distorted. The tendency of error of the brain is exploited by illusionists among others in order Illzi_a_termszetben_Rsz2_283_o_b.jpgto mislead you for the sake of entertainment and dazzlement. The Ames room was created as part of a scientific research, but due to its popularity, you can find one in many museums, theme parks and amusement parks nowadays. The film industry also likes it, for example, it was used instead of CGI in the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, when the great wizard Gandalf and the small hobbits had common scenes.

Attention, I cheat! – From entertainment to superhuman faculties

127775_b.jpgOne of the most famous Hungarian magicians of all time, the merited and excellent artist Rodolfo was born in 1911 under the name Rezső Gross. His discoverer and master teacher Zuárd Ódry gave him the name Rodolfo Grosso that became iconic. The magician books and fakes from his legacy were given to Szórakaténusz Toy Museum owing to the family Gálvölgyi and the famous card collector Antal Jánoska. Though it is a well-known fact in Rodolfo’s case, it is less known in Henry Houdini’s case that he was born in Hungary (in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy) under the name Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874;  88_393_1_m_b_atm_c.jpgand his family immigrated to the USA when Houdini was 4. Houdini, who chose his stage name in honour of the great French wizard Robert Houdin, became famous for his escape shows in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. His escape artist career started at the age of 17 in 1891, when he started performing as an illusionist with his brother Theo in the Huber Museum of New York, where they specialised in escape shows from the beginning. In one of his shows, he was locked in a barrel with his hands and feet shackled, and he got out successfully. He became a celebrated star soon. His popularity soared unstoppably not only in the USA, but also in Canada and Europe. In his different escape performances, he had to get out from chained and shackled places, blindfolded Harry_Houdini_m.jpgand sometimes from deep water, for example from the depth of river Hudson. He dived without diving googles and an oxygen tank, while he had the keys of locks and shackles to free himself. There are magicians whose dangerous performances claimed their lives, but Houdini’s case was different. The story is that he invited a person onto the stage from the audience and asked him to punch in his stomach as hard as he could. Houdini did not know that he had appendicitis, and his appendix perforated (probably due to the punch). He insisted on carrying through his performance and he was taken to hospital only afterwards. He was operated on, but an occurring complication of peritonitis caused his death on 31 October 1926.  

fortepan_127740_d.jpgYou would be wrong if you thought that escape artists’ performances and other similarly dangerous feats, like tightrope walking, do not have benefits beyond entertainment. Acrobats and magicians can develop almost superhuman faculties during practising these feats. For example, skills that make them capable of keeping calm under pressure, controlling the physiological process of their bodies related to stress: heartbeat, pulse;  120519_18.jpgand they are able to hold their nerves in situations that would cause panic normally, while they can concentrate on their tasks to solve. Practising these feats might help anybody (who is physically apt) learn how to control panic in an extreme situation or in a situation that causes a higher-than-average stress level – for example during exams.

Illusionists’ and swindlers’ favourite: the phenomenon of change blindness

escher4.jpgThe so-called change blindness is similar to the above-mentioned phenomena, and it is related to the fact that people do not notice details. Magicians and swindlers often exploit that when applying different misleading tricks. The main thing is that observing persons typically do not notice small changes during different events, most of all, if something diverts their attention while the change occurs.

Károly Erdélyi

Translated by Zita Aknai




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