It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s...gone? Illusionist Franz Harary first wowed audiences 15 years ago by making the space shuttle disappear. “There’s a kind of glass that becomes reflective when electrically charged, so you’re able to produce and vanish objects by turning their reflections on and off,” he says.
The late Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For its part, technology has long played a vital role in the world of magic. One of the world’s first steam engines served a magic trick when Heron of Alexandria, the first-century scientist and engineer, opened a temple door with a secret counterweight.
Today magic shows up most often as electronics—for example, a deck of cards embedded with RFID tags that transmit their identities to a hidden electronic decoder. But audiences have come to expect a technological explanation, says Harary. “Magic has always had to stay ahead.”
Long ago, magicians had a grace period. In the mid-1800s, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, employed a barely known phenomenon, electromagnetism. He had a giant electromagnet built into the stage floor to hold down a metal chest. Adults couldn’t budge it when the magnet was turned on, but children could lift it easily—when the magnet was turned off.
“If we did this trick now, people would assume it involved such a magnet. But at that time, practically no one knew about it,” says Richard Kaufman, the editor of Genii: The Conjurors’ Magazine and author of some two dozen books on magic. With technology a part of everyday life, the challenge becomes more about how well you can use and hide it.
“As soon as magic smells of technology, it’s ruined,” says veteran illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer. “The art is how it’s concealed and what it accomplishes in an unexpected way.”
Many magicians see technology as a tool to update old tricks, such as a digital clipboard that transmits to a laptop a shape drawn by an audience member (the laptop is backstage; the magician has to guess the shape). Another effect—where an image of a chosen card shows up as a bruise on the magician’s arm—uses a chemical reaction. One chemical is smeared on the arm beforehand, with the second applied by sleight of hand.
”In my experience, the magicians who love ’knuckle busting’—the repetitious training of sleight of hand—are mostly amateurs, more interested in impressing each other than amazing audiences,” says mentalist James L. Clark, who edits Magician Magazine and has appeared on TV’s “Masters of Illusion.” “Those who care more about presentation than technique take the path of least resistance.”
Yet others embrace science and technology as the act itself. After drumming for the now-defunct alternative rock band the Pixies, former electronic engineer David Lovering took up magic. He appears as the Scientific Phenomenalist, performing scientific and physics-based experiments on stage. Illusionist Jason Latimer, a World Champion of Magic, surprises audiences by hanging hoops and clothes on laser beams.
“Magicians have always looked for new ways to reimagine old effects,” says Latimer. “But today technology is giving rise to completely new and original ones.”