Magic in Theory: An Introduction to the Theoretical and Psychological Elements of Conjuring

Magic in Theory: An Introduction to the Theoretical and Psychological Elements of Conjuring


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A useful manual for any magician or curious spectator who wonders why the tricks seem so real, this guide examines the psychological aspects of a magician’s work. Exploring the ways in which human psychology plays into the methods of conjuring rather than focusing on the individual tricks alone, this explanation of the general principles of magic includes chapters on the use of misdirection, sleight of hand, and reconstruction, provides a better understanding of this ancient art, and offers a section on psychics that warns of their deceptive magic skills.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781902806501
Publisher: University of Hertfordshire Press
Publication date: 10/28/2005
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.46(d)

About the Author

Peter Lamont is a research fellow at the Koestler Parapsychology unit at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. Richard Wiseman heads the psychology research unit at the University of Hertfordshire. He is the author of The Luck Factor.

Read an Excerpt

Magic in Theory

An Introduction to the Theoretical and Psychological Elements of Conjuring

By Peter Lamont, Richard Wiseman

University of Hertfordshire Press

Copyright © 1999 Peter Lamont and Richard Wiseman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-907396-56-4


Magic tricks and how they are done

An elementary framework of conjuring effects and methods

The performance of magic employs a method (how the trick works) to produce an effect (what the spectator perceives). Success requires that the spectator experience the effect while being unaware of the method. The effects performed by magicians, and the methods used, are incredibly diverse. This chapter offers an elementary framework for understanding the types of conjuring effects and methods used by magicians. The first part of the chapter outlines a classification of conjuring effects whilst the second part offers a list of methodological strategies for each effect.

What magic is: a classification of conjuring effects

To understand what magic is one needs to know what magicians do. However, the abundance of magicians and their tricks makes a list of conjuring effects impractical. To begin to understand what magic is, then, a classification of conjuring effects is offered. Classifications in conjuring are not new. However, there has been little agreement on the most appropriate classification system. Robert-Houdin (1878) divided the art of conjuring into six branches. Maskelyne and Devant (1911/1992) subdivided what they called the three orders of magic into thirteen classes or types, and forty-eight principles or methods. Elsewhere, Devant stated that all effects fell under one of seven headings (Hay, 1949). In the 1930s, Sharpe (1932) listed nineteen simple or primary conjuring feats, while Bernhard (1936) stated there were six. The first signs of consensus appeared in 1944 when Fitzkee's Trick Brain offered a classification that was remarkably similar to that of Sharpe. However, more recent attempts by magicians and psychologists to classify conjuring effects have continued to differ in approach and opinion (Kelley, 1977; Gibson, 1982).

This section offers an original classification of conjuring effects that will allow for a basic analysis of methodological strategies. The classification draws on the terminology of earlier classifications as many of the terms have become widely used by magicians.

Types of conjuring effects

1. Appearance

An object appears where it was not. The best-known example is probably the production of a rabbit from a hat.

2. Vanish

An object disappears from where it was. The most common vanish is probably of a coin, while the most famous recent example is probably David Copperfield's vanish of the Statue of Liberty.

3. Transposition

An object changes position in space. This may be a translocation, which amounts to a vanish from one place and a reappearance elsewhere. An example of a translocation would be 'Coins Across' (in which coins invisibly travel from one hand to the other). A transposition may involve two objects exchanging places, such as the 'Substitution Trunk' (in which the magician and assistant magically change places despite one of them being tied inside a sack and placed inside a trunk). Magicians tend to use the term 'transposition' to refer to either a translocation or an exchange of objects and so this term will be used throughout.

4. Transformation

An object changes form. It may be a change of size, colour, shape, weight or into a different object altogether. Conceptually, this amounts to the vanish of one object and the appearance of another. Classic examples include the 'Colour-changing Deck' (in which the backs of a deck of playing cards change colour) and 'Spellbound' (in which a coin is rubbed and changed to another coin).

5. Penetration

An apparently impossible case of matter through matter. Examples range from 'Linking Rings' (in which metal rings link and unlink magically) to Houdini's 'Walking through a wall' (in which the magician enters a cubicle on one side of a wall and appears from a cubicle on the other side).

6. Restoration

An object is damaged then restored to its original condition. The 'Cut and Restored Rope' and the 'Torn and Restored Newspaper' (both self-explanatory) are two of the best-known examples, along with the many versions of sawing a person in half.

7. Extraordinary feats

a. Mental feats

The appearance of extraordinary mental ability. This would include feats of memory (e.g. the performer memorises the names of the entire audience) and of rapid calculation (e.g. 'magic squares', which involve numerous arithmetical coincidences using numbers selected by a spectator, may be calculated very quickly).

b. Physical feats

The appearance of extraordinary strength or invulnerability to ostensibly harmful effects. This would include lying on a bed of nails or walking on hot coals.

8. Telekinesis

The apparent ability to control movement of objects without physical contact. This would include any effect that involves the magical animation or levitation of an object.

9. Extrasensory perception (ESP)

a. Clairvoyance

The acquirement of information not known to others apparently via extrasensory means. This would include any effect where the magician discovers a secretly selected object, such as a playing card, the location of which is unknown to anyone present.

b. Telepathy

The acquirement of information from others apparently via extrasensory means. This would include any mind-reading effect.

c. Precognition

The apparent acquirement of information from the future. This would include any prediction effect.

d. Mental control

The apparent control over another's mind. Rather than predicting a free selection, the performer influences the selection process.

There are, of course, many overlaps between these types of effects. For example, the 'Needle Through Arm' trick would appear to be a penetration effect; yet, since the actual penetration is not impossible, it is probably better regarded as either a restoration or as an example of an extraordinary physical feat. Most ESP effects could be interpreted in more than one way, and effects of precognition and of mental control are fundamentally the same. Fortunately, however, such problems are not our concern. How the effects are interpreted is a matter of presentation. The purpose of this classification is to outline the effects that conjurors perform and to offer a framework within which methodological strategies may be investigated.

How it's done: methodological strategies for conjuring effects

The literature on methods for achieving conjuring effects is enormous. Every magic book contains several effects and their methods. To list even the most common methods for the most popular effects would take more time and space than might be imagined. It is certainly beyond the resources of this text. Fitzkee (1944) offers a list (almost 300 pages) of methods for his nineteen basic conjuring effects but this text is of limited use as a guide to current methods and, even if this were not the case, it could be argued that the disadvantages of a list of methods would most likely outweigh the advantages. For one thing, an exhaustive list of methods would be impossible. Many magicians have their own secrets and new methods are constantly being invented. Many of these methods fool other knowledgeable magicians. A list that contained many, but not all, methods for an effect would only serve as false security. In addition, the methods themselves are often concealed by a range of physical and psychological devices (see Chapter 3) with the result that a method can fool someone already familiar with it. A list of specific methods for conjuring effects, even if it were possible, would be of little use.

Despite the incredible range of methods used by conjurors to achieve effects, it is possible to piece together the general strategies used to obtain conjuring effects. The outline that follows offers such an elementary framework. Please note that the examples of specific effects given for each strategy are for the purpose of illustration only. Qualifications about the relationship between specific effects and the relevant strategies will be given later.

Methodological strategies

1. Appearance

There are three general strategies for the appearance of an object.

a. Object was already there but was concealed

For example, coins and other small objects may be concealed in the palm prior to their production.

b. Object was secretly put in position

For example, many 'Cups and Balls' routines end with fruit appearing under the cups. These are secretly loaded under the cups during the routine.

c. Object is not actually there but appears to be

For example, 'To Feed Many' (Weber, 1991) is based on a very old mathematical principle that produces an apparent increase in objects when no actual increase has occurred. Also relevant would be cases where fraudulent mediums have simulated the presence of a spirit by secretly touching a sitter.

2. Vanish

There are three general strategies for the vanish of an object:

a. Object was not there but appeared to be there

For example, following a false transfer of a coin, the coin appears to be held in the hand from which it is about to vanish.

b. Object was secretly removed

For example, an object held in the hand may be secretly pulled up the sleeve by a secret device or 'gimmick' known as a 'pull'.

c. Object is still there but is concealed

For example, a coin may be concealed in the hand following its apparent vanish.

3. Transposition

Any transposition from A to B may be seen as a vanish from A and a reappearance at B. The strategies above are therefore relevant. More specifically related to transposition effects are the following general strategies:

a. Object appeared to be at A but was already at B

For example, a false transfer of a coin may be used for a transposition effect i.e. the coin is apparently placed in the left hand, before vanishing and appearing in the right hand. In fact, it was already in the right hand but appeared to be in the left.

b. Object is still at A but appears to be at B

For example, a coin may be placed in the left hand and remain there as the magician claims it has jumped invisibly to the right hand. The magician can later give the impression that the coin has indeed jumped to the right hand by using a sleight known as the 'Han Ping Chien move' (in which the coin is apparently dropped from the right hand but it actually drops out of the left hand).

c. Object was secretly moved from A to B

For example, a coin may be genuinely placed in the left hand, then secretly stolen away by the right hand, before being shown in the right hand.

d. A duplicate object was used

For example, a coin may be shown in the left hand while a duplicate coin is concealed in the right hand. The left hand then palms its coin while the right hand displays the duplicate coin.

4. Transformation

Any transformation of A to B may be seen as a vanish of A and an appearance of B. General strategies for appearances and vanishes are therefore relevant. More specifically related to transformation effects are the following general strategies:

a. Object A was secretly switched for B

For example, a silver coin may be secretly switched for a copper coin before showing the transformation.

b. Object B was already there but was disguised as A

For example, the 'Colour-changing Deck' displays a red-backed deck of playing cards as if it has blue backs. The backs of the cards then seem to change from blue to red. In fact, they were already red but were disguised as blue.

c. Object A is still there but is disguised as B

For example, in the 'Professor's Nightmare', three unequal lengths of rope are apparently transformed into pieces of equal length. In fact, the ropes are still of unequal length but are displayed as if they are of equal length.

5. Penetration

Methodologically, penetration effects may be seen as using strategies similar to those used in transpositions and restorations. Penetrations such as 'Coins Through the Table' or 'Walking Through a Wall', in which objects effectively vanish from one side of a barrier and reappear on the other side, may be seen as a transposition from one side of the barrier to the other. Penetrations such as 'Pen Through Note' or 'Cigarette Through Coin', in which one solid object clearly passes through another, without resulting in a hole, may be seen as restorations of an object damaged by penetration.

6. Restoration

There are three general strategies for the restoration of a damaged object.

a. The object was not really damaged

For example, in 'Snap', a rubber band is apparently broken then restored. In fact, it is not actually broken but only appears to have been.

b. The object was not really restored

For example, in an old match trick, a match is broken in two, then restored to one piece. In fact, the match is actually broken but the pieces are pushed back together so that they adhere to each other and the match appears to have been restored.

c. Duplicate object was used

For example, in many versions of tricks in which paper is torn and restored, the paper is actually torn, then secretly switched for a duplicate piece of paper.

7. Extraordinary feats

Mental and physical feats may be faked by using techniques relevant to other effects. Magicians may use a variety of techniques to simulate feats of memory, for example, or to fake physical feats such as eating glass. While feats of extraordinary mental and physical ability may be entirely faked, they may also rely partly or wholly on relatively obscure scientific (such as mathematical or physiological) knowledge or specific techniques. Penetration of the body by a sharp object, for example, may be faked or genuine, and the latter may be harmless, if not painless, when performed correctly. These areas of knowledge are incredibly diverse and magicians are not necessarily the most appropriate experts. Some magicians, however, have specialised in the areas of memory (Lorayne, 1958), and physical feats (Ovette, 1947; Lever, 1978; Fisher, 1979; Miller, 1984).

8. Telekinesis

Psychokinesis or PK is a term in parapsychology that has come to cover all forms of psychic influence on physical organisms. Most of the effects described so far could be seen as examples of macro-PK. The term telekinesis is used here as an alternative to refer to specific forms of macro-PK, namely those that involve some kind of physical action of an object without physical contact. This would include levitation of an object, animation of an object, magnetic attraction between nonmagnetised objects and visual transformations such as spoon bending. This latter category might better fall into the transformation category but certain specific versions appear to be telekinetic since they appear to involve a movement of the spoon without proper physical influence. These effects are grouped together for methodological reasons (i.e. the general methods used tend to be similar). There are three general strategies for a telekinesis effect:

a. Action caused by external force

This strategy is probably the most common. There are several ways in which the movement of an object may be influenced by an external force. The magician might directly cause the movement by using an unseen connection. The most widely applicable gimmick used is known as invisible thread (Braco, 1982; Swiss, 1989). Subject to appropriate lighting and background, very fine threads are invisible to the eye. Since the idea of a thread (or wire in stage illusions) is hardly beyond the imagination of the spectator, many effects employ physical and psychological ploys to imply or apparently prove that a thread is not being used.

Other unseen connections include an unseen hand, finger, foot and various secret devices, as well as ordinary thread that is properly concealed. Solid connections are not necessary, however. Objects may be moved by magnets, air currents (such as the magician's breath) and the ingenious use of gravity (Minch, 1982).


Excerpted from Magic in Theory by Peter Lamont, Richard Wiseman. Copyright © 1999 Peter Lamont and Richard Wiseman. Excerpted by permission of University of Hertfordshire Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1 Magic tricks and how they are done,
Chapter 2 Misdirection,
Chapter 3 Reconstruction,
Chapter 4 What's the difference between a magician and a pseudo-psychic?,
Chapter 5 Conjuring theory in perspective,
Chapter 6 Bibliography,
Appendix: Methodological devices for conjuring effects,

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