Born in 1805 in Blois, Robert-Houdin is considered the founding father of modern magic. His magic tricks were a resounding success due to his use of innovative techniques, which were swiftly replicated across the globe. 

He is often mistakenly confused with his American-almost-namesake, who was also one of the greatest illusionists of his time. However, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin was not related to Harry Houdini; in fact, Houdini’s real name was Ehrich Weisz. Born three years after the death of his French predecessor, Houdini chose his stage name as a way of paying tribute to this magician, who he had greatly admired throughout his life. The recognition of Robert-Houdin across the Atlantic is well-deserved, and the magician is often credited with establishing modern magic as we know it today. The illusionist began his career as a watchmaker’s apprentice in Blois, before turning his hand to craftsmanship in Paris. While repairing watches, he discovered the first musical automatons, including the Componium. From automaton to prestidigitation, there was only one step that the watchmaker took readily. 

At the age of 40, he gathered the money necessary to open the Théâtre des Soirées Fantastiques at the Palais Royal, where he presented a series of automations over several months, each one more astonishing than the last. He very quickly added new ‘numbers’, or rather illusions that were very successful at the time, such as La Bouteille Inexhaustible [The Inexhaustible Bottle], La Boîte Magique [The Magic Box] or La Suspension éthéréenne [The Etherian Suspension]. 

The Théâtre de Robert-Houdin, as it soon became known, could accommodate just over 200 people. The magician took advantage of all the techniques of his time, many of which were still unheard of amongst the general public, using electricity and electromagnetism to create his illusions. Ingenious inventions transformed each piece of furniture used on stage into a tool for concealing the ‘tricks’ invented by Robert-Houdin. With a combination of hatch systems, clever mechanisms and a limitless imagination, his creations were bestowed with an aura that earned him the chance to rapidly ‘shake off his Parisian competitors’. The entire theatre is designed with illusion in mind, from the stage to the orchestra pit, including some of the audience seats, which were also rigged. Within only five years of its opening, Robert-Houdin’s Théâtre des Soirées Fantastiques had made its creator a fortune and, as a result, was transferred to a space considered even more prestigious, on the very busy Boulevard des Italiens. 

Robert-Houdin’s memory continues to this day. The successful play, Le Cercle des Illusionnistes [The Circle of Illusionists], touches on both his life and that of Georges Méliès. The famous filmmaker became the ‘new owner’ of Robert-Houdin’s theatre, a few years after the death of its founder. At the age of 27, Méliès began a career as a theatre director and illusionist, founding an Academy of Prestidigitation before turning to a brand new form of ‘illusion’ popularised by the Lumière brothers, which used Cinematograph devices. At the end of his life, after retiring from theatre, Robert-Houdin retreated to his house, located in a village near Blois, Saint-Gervais-la-Forêt. Here, he installed all kinds of mechanisms in his garden aimed at surprising the few visitors who ventured far from Paris to greet the brilliant inventor and see his new illusions. Robert-Houdin will forever remain the founding father of illusion.

Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin
Text by Cyrille Jouanno