Best Magic Tricks of All Time
As professional full-time magicians, we have seen a lot of magic in our lives and could easily make a good list for you. However, we wanted to open this up to someone that has a bit of a time-machine to past eras of magic. He's a magic historian and theater scholar, as well as a University teacher. In addition, he wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on magic during the French Belle Epoque which is arguably the era of the height of magic performance. Read on...
Top 10 Greatest Magic Tricks of All Time
by Dr. Will Given
University of California, San Diego
There are those who argue that all magic tricks can be placed into specific categories. On a basic level, these categories include: appearance/disappearance, destruction/restoration, transformation, levitation, penetration, escape, and prediction. The fact is though, many strong magic tricks do not fall neatly into one of these and instead combine multiple elements of different categories. Magic tricks should not be easily categorized. Instead, they should inspire wonder and cause us to believe the impossible is truly possible. Let's take a look now at our vote for the top ten magic tricks that do precisely that.
There are magic tricks that become so ubiquitous they can begin to lose their impact. For example, take Robert Harbin's Zig Zag Girl from 1965. The Zig Zag Girl is a great illusion, but due to its over-performance, by both skilled and not-so-skilled magicians, it can leave an audience feeling a bit underwhelmed. Jim Steinmeyer's Interlude runs a similar risk. The illusion itself is a thing of beauty. The magician is put into a framework resembling a Vitruvian Man pose. An assistant covers the magician's torso and then passes directly through the magician, both seemingly occupying the same space simultaneously. When performed well, the illusion leaves audiences speechless.
9. Silver Fish
One of Teller's signature pieces, this is one of those tricks that defies categorization. Performed entirely without dialogue (this is Teller, of course), the trick begins with a spectator from the audience seated on stage next to a large tank of water. Teller hands the spectator an empty fishbowl and proceeds to reach into the water tank to grab some water. He takes the water in his hand and transfers it into the empty bowl now sitting on the spectator's lap, but instead of water, a silver dollar drops into the bowl instead. Teller produces myriad coins out of the water and out of midair. When the bowl is filled with scores of coins, Teller takes it from the spectator and dumps all the coins into the tank of water. The silver dollars instantly transform into a large school of goldfish. The illusion is, quite simply, poetry.
8. Levitation of Princess Karnak
Levitating someone who has supposedly been put in a hypnotic trance may seem to be standard fare these days. In fact, it may be something we expect to see in a large illusion show. For audiences in the latter part of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century though, the illusion was remarkable. The lineage of this trick is of note. The trick was made famous by Howard Thurston who had inherited it from his predecessor, Kellar. Kellar, however, "borrowed" the trick (ahem) from the British magician, John Nevil Maskelyne. Kellar reportedly wanted the trick so badly for his own show that he went to a Maskelyne performance to figure out how it was done. Not being able to discern the secret right away, Kellar got up from his seat in the audience and walked up on stage while Maskelyne was in the middle of performing the levitation. Kellar looked around, saw how the trick worked, and promptly left the stage. Whether one approves of Kellar's approach or not, it did help establish this form of levitation as a staple of the Golden Age of Magic.
7. The Vanishing Lady (de Kolta Chair)
Developed by the French magician, Buatier de Kolta in the latter part of the nineteenth century, the effect involves the magician covering someone sitting in a chair with a large cloth. The form of the individual can still be seen as the cloth drapes down over her or him. The magician whisks the cloth away to reveal an empty chair. Even though this trick is now well over a century old, it is still a staggering sight to behold.
6. Sawing a Person in Half
This is another of those tricks on this list that is so widely used by magicians that is has become synonymous with magic. What makes this trick so enduring though is how magicians over the years have created unique variations to make the trick their own. Copperfield saws himself in half with a large circular buzzsaw. Richardi included a large amount of fake blood in his version to shock the audience. Clear boxes have been used. There are versions where the person being cut in two is standing vertically. Carnival of Illusion even performs their own version of the illusion in the current season of the show that allows the audience to see the trick up close in an intimate setting.
5. Mascot Moth
This illusion takes place so quickly, audiences are surprised. An individual in an elaborate flowing cape dances across the stage. When the magician approaches, the individual covers up with the cape. The magician grabs the material and pulls it away, revealing the person has now disappeared. Made famous by the British magician David Devant, the trick is not performed that often due to the complicated technical requirements needed to achieve the effect. Blackstone Sr. performed a version in his show and Doug Henning included the trick in his Broadway production, Merlin. If you ever get a chance to see this performed live, you will remember it for the rest of your life.
4. Water Torture Cell
This illusion has taken on its own mythology over the years. In the illusion, the magician is suspended upside down over a tall tank of water. The magician is lowered down into the tank and has the shackles holding his or her feet locked in place. The magician must now make a seemingly impossible escape. Many believe that Houdini died performing this illusion. Shhh, we'll let you in on a secret: this isn't true. This belief is thanks to the 1953 biopic, Houdini, which stars Tony Curtis as the famed magician. In that film, Houdini starts losing consciousness while performing the escape on stage. His trusty assistant grabs an axe and breaks the glass of the tank, spilling water onto the stage (and the audience) and thus freeing the near-death Houdini. Houdini gasps his final words to his wife Bess (Janet Leigh) before slipping the surly bonds of Earth (and also rewriting history in the process).
3. Cups and Balls
The highest ranking close-up trick on our list is also believed to be one of the oldest magic tricks known to exist. There is a carving of a picture of what could be something similar to the cups and balls being performed that was found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. The Roman philosopher Seneca refers to the trick over two-thousand years ago. The cups and balls is, without a doubt, one of the cornerstones of magic. The trick has been performed on the street, on television, on large stages, and everywhere in between. To watch a skilled modern-day performer such as Gazzo manipulate the small balls to make them appear and disappear beneath different cups is an absolute pleasure and can remind one how magic should elicit a sense of joy and wonderment within us all.
This is another illusion that takes place in the blink of an eye. The magician is bound and put in a bag. The bag is locked inside a trunk. The assistant stands on top of the box, pulls up a cloth to cover him or herself, and drops it to reveal that it is now the magician standing on top of the box. The box is opened, and the assistant is now found to be inside. This is the trick that helped Houdini become the sensation that he was to become. It would be difficult to find another trick that has such an immediate impact on an audience. Countless magicians have performed their own version of this over the years, but very few have come even close to matching the prowess of the Pendragons. Watch their performances of Metamorphosis above. Hold on a second, though. If this trick is so impactful to see, and can make even the most skeptical audience member actually start to believe that magic does indeed exist, how is it not in the number one position on our list? Read on to find out!
1. Light and Heavy Chest
Sometimes, magic can be used not just to entertain, but to actually influence. Our number one trick earned its spot from the sheer power of its performance. Creating a trick utilizing some newly discovered scientific principles, Robert-Houdin used this in his show when the Emperor Napoleon III sent the magician to Algeria to help temper those on the verge of an uprising. Robert-Houdin presented a small box and had a young child from the audience come up on stage to lift it to demonstrate how light it was. Robert-Houdin then asked one of the strongest men in the audience to join him on stage. With a wave of his hand, Robert-Houdin was able to "sap" the spectator's strength from him. When the man tried to lift the box, he could not, no matter how hard he tried. Robert-Houdin framed the illusion as a demonstration of French superiority and, in a story that has since become mythical in nature, was able to avert a possible revolution with a magic trick.
The effect seems simple enough. The magician shows a single coin on an outstretched hand. Slowly closing the hand and then reopening it, finger by finger, the coin vanishes. Magicians have been making coins disappear for centuries, but when Doug Henning opened his 1975 Christmas special, Doug Henning's World of Magic, with this trick, television audiences were stunned. What makes this trick so memorable is that it needs no explanation. It is simply visual magic in its purest form.
What are some of your favorite magic tricks? What tricks have inspired a sense of wonder in you? Our list is very heavily focused on illusion; are there some close-up or parlour tricks you feel MUST be on this list? Do you think it is a travesty that Linking Rings didn't make the cut? Email us and share your vote! If you want to know more about some of the magicians mentioned here, please check out our Top 10 Magicians of All Time list.