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Solving mysteries with magical patents


The name Horace Goldin probably rings relatively few bells these days. Which is unfortunate. Many people in the 1920s would have argued that Mr Goldin was one of the great innovators in his field.

For those still in the dark, Horace Goldin was a U.S. based stage magician who rose to fame thanks to his main trick – sawing a woman in half. Goldin was not the first to present this trick on stage – that honour resides with a British magician a few months earlier. However, Goldin achieved his place in history through his technical improvements to the apparatus, just as much as his stage presence.

Luckily for us, Goldin’s technical improvements are eloquently detailed in each of his many patent applications. In one application (US 1458575) he describes the box required for the sawing trick – it must be deep enough to allow a person to curl up in one end of the box while fake feet are projected out of the other end while the box is sawed down the middle. In an improved box (GB245857) two people can be accommodated, one at each end of the box. Turns out there was no magic after all.

So should patent registers be the first port of call when trying to understand the working of the latest magic tricks? Well they are not a bad place to start.

Ever wondered how David Copperfield’s levitation illusion worked? Look no further than patent US 5354238 – arrays of wires are used, attached to a harness under the performer’s clothes. The wires are invisible to the viewing audience because a computer controlled rig above the stage keeps each array perpendicular to the audience’s line of sight, never overlapping each other so they cannot be seen.

How about the infamous Pepper’s ghost trick, still used today on stage to cause objects to fade in and out of existence? For this you have to go right back to UK patent number 326, filed in 1863. Glass screens and lights are required to create the reflections that make illuminated objects seem to appear on stage.

The Svengali card deck will probably be best known to amateur magicians – a trick deck of cards that is required for many of the best, and most achievable, card magic tricks. The deck was invented by U.S. magician Burling Hull. His patent is dated 1909. The deck alternates between normal sized cards and shortened cards, with all of the shortened cards having the same number and suit. Therefore, when a spectator chooses one of the shortened cards out of the deck and replaces it, the magician can shuffle the pack and pick the spectator’s card out from practically anywhere.

Although the patents above have proved interesting reading, obtaining them was probably not the right course of action for Horace Goldin.

While able to prevent competitors and rival magicians from copying his magical box apparatus, he could not stop them ‘debunking’ the magic behind it. His earlier forms of the sawing act suffered when a detailed explanation of the apparatus was published, following the publication of his patent application, destroying any sense of magic surrounding it. As a result, later versions of the trick, involving a buzz saw and no box to hide the woman in, were not patented. It seems these will forever remain a magical mystery.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.

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