Through tricks and illusions, magicians inspire the future. The history of magic is full of deception that years later turned into reality. In the mid 19th century, French illusionist, inventor, and clockmaker Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin turned a humble French mansion into the world’s first interactive smart building. Dubbed the House of Magic, the estate was the first time the public saw many elements of automated indoor technology that have come to define modern homes and businesses.
Magic isn’t real, of course. The illusions and tricks are created with engineering, deception, pomp, and circumstance. Many of the world’s best magicians throughout history had deep-seated backgrounds in architecture, engineering, and design, using their expertise to delicately craft illusions from the ground up. In fact, early magic tricks were often described by illusionists as ‘experiments.’ World Famous Magician David Copperfield is known to have a team of engineers and technologists working diligently in a lab housed in a nondescript warehouse, helping him to develop his next big show. Copperfield is a regular at the Consumer Electronics Expo, the world’s largest tech conference, where he goes to ‘get inspired,’ walking the floor scouting the latest technology to incorporate into his Vegas act.
“I’m trying to do science fiction live. At CES, I get inspired to do that —to make things that 10 years from now will be a reality at CES,” Copperfield told USA Today.
Copperfield comes from a long line of magicians using the latest technology to craft tricks. He created a museum to the practice that highlights how influential the world of magic has been on the world of technology. The museum highlights Georges Méliès, a French illusionist widely considered one of the fathers of modern cinema. In the late 19th century Meilies attended a demonstration of the Lumière Cinématograph in Paris. The Lumière brothers refused to sell him a camera, failing to see its commercial uses. Highly regarded among his peers across the continent, Méliès used his network to get his hands on a projector from London-based optician Robert William Paul. Méliès used his technical skill to reverse the projector system, creating a camera. Over the next several years Méliès used the device to create the first commercially successful films, using early versions of special effects to draw audiences in. Today’s box office hits are direct descendants of Méliès’ work.
The same can be said for Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, a famous contemporary of Méliès. Putting his mechanical mind to work, Robert-Houdin created simple illusions and tricks easing the hassle of daily life. Detailed drawings from Robert-Houdin lay out the technical expertise behind his magic. Upon visiting, guests reached the locked gate far from the home itself. Once knocked, the gate would unlock and automatically swing open, flipping the name-plague from ‘Robert-Houdin’ to ‘Entrez’, inviting guests inside the estate without another person in sight. The gate closed itself, locked itself, and reset the name plague. Bells rang at the house indicating the type of guest and size of party. A short delay meant a familiar visitor, a long delay meant a new visitor. The length of delays indicated the size of the party. None of it was magic, the trick was done by a house servant pressing buttons, but for visitors, it seemed magical.
Inside, guests found a home full of electrical and mechanical gadgets, like centrally controlled clocks and alarms, and automated horse feeders. Robert-Houdin used the centrally controlled clock to move time forward or backward. The opening and closing of doors throughout the house actually wound the central clock. A temperature-activated fire alarm was another key feature in the home as well as a burglar alarm on windows only active at night. Smaller gadgets included an alarm clock that would automatically light a candle when triggered and a periscope that provided panoramic views of the town nearly three kilometers away. Several automatons were set up throughout the residence performing basic tasks.
Robert-Houdin ushered in a new paradigm of bringing magic into the home. Long considered a stage act, the rising status of magicians and ‘conjurers’, as they were called at the time, had performers being invited to perform inside the residences of nobility and royalty. The trend gave rise to a new form of illusions, parlor magic. As illusions, conjuring, and tricks became prominent in domestic spaces, their potential to radically change the spaces they inhabit began to take shape. Robert-Houdin’s inventions brought more order and control over property ownership. Gone were the days of unexpected visitors, servants who slept in too late, and hungry horses. Robert-Houdin’s world wasn’t one of industrial utility but of ‘delightful convenience,’ using his gadgets not to smooth the edges of everyday life by turning minor tasks into moments of fantasy.
Robert-Houdin’s house is now a museum to his magic. The estate was the first in a line of transformative iterations of domestic life that precipitated the rise of PropTech. The apartment of Charles de Beistegui, also in France, was a modern party penthouse designed by renowned architect Le Corbusier. Inspired by the Robert-Houdin house, it featured moveable walls, hedges, and windows, and even its own periscope viewed through a shape-shifting chandelier. Years later in the 1950s, the House of The Future debuted in London, featuring a self-cleaning bath and disappearing furniture that went into the floor when not in use.
The technology that now fills our buildings would astound Robert-Houdin in its innovation and ubiquity. Once a magic trick, automated doors are commonplace. Access control is no longer servants pressing buttons, but a full tech stack validating access, granting entry, counting occupancy, and keeping records. It’s common to look down on magic but if you truly look at the history of illusions, you’ll find far more than cheap tricks. Illusionists and magicians dare to dream, technology turns those dreams into reality. Who knows, the next smart building innovation might be center stage at a magic show right now but we wouldn’t see it get commercially adopted until the magician decides to reveal his secrets.