Written By : The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica
Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, original name Jean-Eugène Robert (born Dec. 6, 1805, Blois, Fr.—died June 13, 1871, St. Gervais, near Blois), French magician who is considered to be the father of modern conjuring. He was the first magician to use electricity; he improved the signalling method for the “thought transference” trick; and he exposed “fakes” and magicians who relied on supernatural explanations for their feats. Although he did not do away with apparatus, he did, in the main, use what appeared to be common and familiar objects to create an illusion, then supplied the audience with a plausible explanation of the technical procedures involved in the trick.
Interested in magic from boyhood, Robert-Houdin was trained as a watchmaker; he later worked on his mechanical devices in Paris and was a magician at the Palais-Royal (1845–55), performing on a bare stage in evening dress instead of in wizardlike costumes. There he created a sensation with his “floating boy” trick, achieved with the use of a concealed metal support structure. In 1856 he was sent to Algeria by the French government to combat the influence of the dervishes by duplicating their feats. His influential books, based largely on the best ideas of his predecessors, explain the art of magic and give step-by-step lessons. They include an autobiography (1857), Confidences d’un prestidigitateur (1859), and Les Secrets de la prestidigitation et de la magie (1868).