5 Magicians Who Shaped The Course Of History

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by Shane Cox

When you think of magicians, chances are that “badass” isn’t the first adjective that pops into your brain. Maybe "legal con artist" or "creative liar," but not badass. Still, there have been magicians over the years who have not only fit that description, but they helped steer the course of history.

 
 

A French Wizard Stopped A Revolution With A Magnet

Throughout history, the world has dealt with rebellions in pretty much the same way: the tried and true method of filling the rebels with enough bullets to qualify as a Quentin Tarantino movie. But when an Algerian insurrection arose in 1856, Napoleon III decided that he didn’t want to escalate the country’s unrest into a full blown revolt. So rather than sending in the troops, he sent over some magician dude.

Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin is now known as the “father of modern magic” and was responsible for bringing his art off the streets and into big theaters. He was enjoying his retirement when the French called him into action, presumably by way of Magician-Signal, which of course is the image of a top hat projected into the sky via torch-powered spotlight. Look, neither Batman nor light bulbs had been invented yet, so we’re just spitballing here.

The source of the conflict in Algeria was the marabouts, supposed holy men who used deception and illusions to convince the people to revolt against French occupation. They performed tricks like snake-charming and fire-walking to convince people that their mission had been given divine approval by Allah. So Robert-Houdin was asked to prove to the citizens of Algeria that French magic was way more badass than marabout magic. You may think this an odd way to deal with a hostile uprising, and you’d be absolutely right. But it worked.

Robert-Houdin set up a stage and proceeded to dazzle the crowd with his world-renowned routine. The kicker came at the end of the show, when he claimed he could make a strongman “as weak as a woman.” He said that, actually, because threatening someone with a sexist comparison at the time was apparently shocking as hell.

"For my next trick, I'll make racist comments about your family."

He then placed a small metal box on the floor and asked a burly volunteer to lift it, which he did with minimal effort. But after Robert-Houdin said the magic words, the man found himself unable to move the box at all. Furious that this little Frenchman had embarrassed him in front of his leaders, he really gave it a go, but ended up screaming in pain and fleeing from the stage in tears. Not only had Robert-Houdin constructed an electromagnet under the stage to hold the box down, but he also rigged it to deliver an electric shock through the handles.

Shortly thereafter, he sent word to the marabouts letting them know how he did it, and they were so impressed that they honored him and conceded to France.

A Street Magician Accidentally Revolutionized A Global Trade Market

We all tell little fibs now and then -- hell, that’s how most magicians make a living. The truly great ones, however, are the ones who are up front about it. We're not sure if he's the one who originally said it, but Teller is often attributed with the quote, “Magic is an art form where you lie and tell people you are lying.” The audience knows they’re not witnessing real sorcery, and yet their eyes and ears tell them otherwise.

One thing they tend to not mention in the Magician’s Handbook, however, is that if you claim to have actual powers, you could accidentally make a discovery that could shift the global economy of two of the most powerful nations in the world. We've all been there.

Johann Böttger was a young magician and chemist who lived in the early 1700s. As a teenager, he became obsessed with alchemy -- specifically, the study of turning lead into gold. But when he realized that you can’t actually do that, he said "screw it" and decided to pretend that he could. He started performing on the street when he was nineteen years old, using sleight of hand to convince the crowd that he could transform silver into gold. Unfortunately for him, the King of Saxony caught wind of his claims and immediately placed the young charlatan under “house arrest” until he revealed his secret.

"CHUG! CHUG! CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!"

Desperate to avoid an appointment with the chopping block, Johann worked for years to try to actually discover the nonexistent secret of alchemy. He thought that the problem lay not in the formula, but in the equipment he was using. He came to the conclusion that he needed to use more heat for the process to work and shifted his focus to making heat-proof clay. With the help of another “house guest,” Ehrenfried Walter von Tschirnhaus, he developed a harder, finer clay that was both scratch-proof and delicate. In short, he accidentally discovered porcelain.

At the time, China alone controlled the monopoly on this prestigious item, so the secret of making it was invaluable. His discovery ended the king’s financial crisis, shifted the balance of power in the trade world and saved his own skin at the same time.

And now the world literally craps all over his work.

An Army Of Deception Experts Screwed With Nazis

We’re pretty sure we’re all in agreement that Nazis are bad. We don’t speculate on whether or not punching them on camera is the best course of corrective action, but we will say that there may be better ways to deal with them. For example, you could form the World War II version of The Avengers and trick them into thinking they're going crazy. You could even call yourselves something kickass, like The Ghost Army, which was an actual thing.

The Ghost Army, officially known as the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, carried out 20 battlefield deceptions from 1944 to 1945. The individual members of the 23rd unit were not literal magicians, but damn, what they pulled off was pretty much magic. Made up of mostly actors, artists and engineers, they convinced the German forces that the Allied armies were not where they appeared to be.

Honestly, the amount of sheer awesome this unit accomplished could fill a book, and it has. Their first mission in 1944 was to run into enemy territory, set up a decoy artillery site and wait to be attacked. And it freaking worked, with zero casualties. They even paraded an army consisting entirely of rubber tanks across Germany to draw the enemy away from the rest of the troops. This allowed the actual army to safely cross the Rhine River and obliterate what was left of the confused Nazis.

 The Atlantic / National Archives

The Atlantic / National Archives

This was literally inflatable. No joke there -- it actually was.

They improved the illusion by recording the sound of a moving troupe, complete with screaming drill sergeants, and broadcast it at a high volume as they moved. They then created a subdivision responsible for interfering and mimicking Nazi radio frequencies. It’s estimated that The Ghost Army saved tens of thousands of lives during the war, all through the use of creativity and deception.

If that’s not magic, we’re not sure what is.

America’s First Black Celebrity Was A Magician

If you want to be remembered for something, do something before anyone else does. Go walk on the moon, be a black President, or maybe a woman who flies across the Atlantic. OK, you probably missed the boat on those, but you get the idea.

For Richard Potter, he was going to be the very first black celebrity, during a time when slavery was still legal. And he did so by being a brilliant magician.

Born on a plantation, Potter was a renowned magician, ventriloquist and hypnotist. He started performing with his mentor, a Scottish magician named John Rannie, at just ten years old. He went solo in 1811, continuing to dazzling crowds with his skills.

Come on, man ... pick a font.

Despite the mind-boggling amount of money he made from each show, Potter still faced challenges on his road to fame. He was actually dissuaded from performing in Charleston because the politicians and newspapers of the area were worried that a free, literate, confident black man could inspire their slaves into a revolt. He and his wife, while on tour in Mobile, Alabama, were even forbidden from staying in the town's hotels.

Rather than give up, Potter stayed in Alabama for twelve nights, raking in thousands of dollars in show revenue. And if that wasn’t ballsy enough, he did so while advertising himself as “The Black Yankee.”

His presence in the world of showmanship helped to improve the images of all performers in America, and especially those of African Americans. During this period of history, stage performers were looked down upon by the rest of society, who viewed any kind of stage act as an “unsuitable” career. That, coupled with the adversity he faced, makes his level of success a small miracle. He stood as a living embodiment of the American dream, and he still influences performers to this day.

Yet Another French Magician Revolutionized The Film Industry

In today’s culture, filmmakers have become some of our most important storytellers. What would life be like without Star Wars, The Avengers, or Sharknado? Crap, probably. Or maybe awesome, given that last one.

One man deserves our gratitude for laying the groundwork for special effects in movies, as well as creating the first science fiction films the world had ever seen, and his name is George Méliès.

Méliès was doing pretty well for himself and even had his own magic theater. But when he was invited to a cinematography display to see the Lumière brothers’ new projector, he became fascinated with the idea of movies. When the brothers refused to sell him a camera, he built one of his own. But his obsession didn't stop there ... he sold his theater and built the first movie studio in Europe. His greatest accomplishment, however, was discovered by accident.

While Méliès and his crew were shooting a film, the camera jammed as it was recording. When he went back to develop the film, he was shocked to see the break in the recording had led to the effect of one scene being “transformed” into another. Basically, he discovered and developed the first use of the "stop trick":

 
 

Méliès continued to use his background as a magician to design illusions for the camera. He pioneered several other special effect methods, including hand-painting every image of his films. He created over 500 movies by the end of his career and performed all of his own stunts ... because nothing says badassery like laying your life on the line in an age where “safety” was a hilarious side-note.

Sadly, his success was short-lived, and his company went bankrupt shortly after World War I. The French army melted down many of his films for silver, and he sold even more that were turned into boot heels for soldiers. Discouraged and broke, Méliès spent seven years working in a small toy shop. But before he died, he was rediscovered by a film editor of Ciné-Journal who helped to revive his career and find many of his lost movies. His story served as an inspiration for the novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was later turned into a movie of its own.

Like this article? Check out "The Top 10 Greatest Rogues In Hollywood History" and "Modern Tech That's Way Older Than You Think".

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