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Houdini And Edison Illuminate The Mysteries Of American Invention


Brilliance and dedication are the indispensable hallmarks of invention; without either, progress in science and the arts would grind to a halt. As demonstrated by the inventively fertile late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, when masterminds like Harry Houdini (1874-1926) and Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) ascended to worldwide celebrity status, the creative explosion that profoundly changed the world was powered by another, less tangible fuel: imagination.

As evident in two new biographies, Edison and Houdini pushed human progress far beyond previously imagined boundaries, conjuring the new (and vastly improved) out of nothing. They harnessed the magic of their particular geniuses and yoked it to their boundless energy and supreme cleverness in the service of enhancing and extending life the world over.

This amalgam of science and imagination unique to world-class inventors emerges in the mysterious origin stories of their lives and creations; in the unusual circumstances of improvement; in their manner of overcoming their failures; in the importance of spectacle and flair; and, ultimately, in their departure from the scene. Through these lenses, we witness the science of magic and the magic of science.

The Importance of Origin Stories

Great inventors invent their own stories as well.

In Edison, Edmund Morris’s peculiar, magisterial biography of Edison that proceeds, “Memento”-style, in reverse chronological order, we learn that Edison’s origin story began on Michigan’s Grand Trunk Railway, where he learned to operate a telegraph and sold newspapers up and down the line. Legend has it that young Thomas grew so comfortable riding trains that he conducted one at age 13 and even assembled a mobile chemistry laboratory in the baggage car of another, at least until several stray phosphorus sticks nearly ignited the carriage.

The origins of some of Edison’s most celebrated inventions are also shrouded in mystery. With more than 1,000 patented inventions, amounting to an absurd rate of one issued patent every 11 days of his adult life, Edison is arguably the greatest inventor the world has ever known. Yet even the meticulous Morris struggles to pinpoint the “aha” moment everything fell into place, including the instant he discovered the ideal filament to illuminate his incandescent bulb.

Similarly, a rival electrochemical inventor, Joseph Swan of England, claimed to have anticipated Edison’s light bulb by several decades. Although he never presented actual evidence of prior invention, the British scientific establishment, including its recently inaugurated journal Nature, wholeheartedly joined Team Swan.

Edison has even been credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with originating the word “hello,” the emblematic phrase he used to answer his fledgling telephone, in place of the more widely accepted “Halloo.”

Similarly, Houdini, as Joe Posnaski’s refreshing new biography The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini reveals, was by 1915 more “famous in more countries than any performer on earth.” Indeed, more than 500 books have been written about Houdini, to go with nearly 20 documentaries, feature films, and miniseries. But his life began much more mysteriously. “Harry Houdini lied obsessively,” Posnaski contends, “though he did not think of it as lying.”

A key example is his birth time, place, and name:

Why say his birthday was April 6 when it was March 24? Why say he was born in the United Sates when he was born in Budapest and did not come over the ocean until he was four? Why did Houdini consistently punctuate his autographs with a cheerful ‘Appleton, Wisconsin,’ as if that was his beloved hometown, when he actually lived in Appleton for less than four years? The best answer is that for Houdini, the illusion never ended and real life never began. The boy born as Ehrich Weiss became Harry Houdini the way James Gatz became Jay Gatsby and Dick Whitman became Donald Draper and Norma Jeane Mortenson became Marylyn Monroe.

Even Houdini’s invented name derived from an act of invention. The magician credits an early 19th-century French conjurer named Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, who in turn claimed to draw inspiration from the Count Edmond de Grisy, who went by the nom-de-magique Torrini. In choosing his stage name, Weiss combined Robert-Houdin’s and Torrini’s names to generate Houdini, according to most scholars. But the joke was on Houdini: it would later turn out that Robert-Houdin had himself conjured Torrini out of thin air, unbeknownst to his future half-namesake.

Improvement as Innovation

Another essential element of this inventive period was the importance of incremental advances. As both Edison and Houdini demonstrated, even inventions that “merely” improve upon preexisting ideas can make for epoch-altering innovations.

Consider the iPhone, for instance: touchscreens, mobile email, integrated cameras, texting capability, and portable music all existed prior to 2007, even all on the same device. Even the name “iPhone” predated Steve Jobs’s creation. But somehow, when Jobs packaged the iPhone together, and made it work so much more seamlessly than anything before, the device changed our lives (for the better and worse).

At a young age, Morris observes, Edison was “cautioned that countless others had preceded him, and even the greatest individuals among them – Copernicus, Newton, Franklin, Faraday – had based their work on the accumulating wisdom of mankind.” Sure enough, Edison honed his craft improving the telegraph’s means and manner of reception and transmission decades after Samuel Morse had originally invented it. (Scientifically literate and richly detailed and illustrated, Morris’s Edison ably captures the nuances of the man and his creations, despite its distracting and odd sequencing.)

“My so-called inventions,” Edison confided mid-career, “already existed in the environment – I took them out. I’ve created nothing. Nobody does. There’s no such thing as an idea being brain-born. Everything comes from the outside.”

Even the incandescent light bulb, arguably Edison’s greatest achievement, arrived as an enhanced version of pre-existing inventions. He titled his very first patent on the bulb “Improvement in Electric Lights,” and produced it only after examining a series of carbon arc lamps powered by an eight-horsepower “dynamo” – a sort of primitive generator – developed by a pair of tinkerers in Ansonia, Connecticut.

Ultimately, Edison’s greatest electrification accomplishment unfolded less in the durability of the incandescent filament he developed (he settled on a species of Japanese bamboo known as Yawata Madake) than in the distribution network that kindled electric streetlamps in entire cities, in turn the result of incremental improvements, not any dramatic single breakthrough.

The same is true in magic. Metamorphosis – the trick for which Houdini gained the most notoriety, which involved binding one magician with ropes, placing him in a case, removing the case, and finding a different magician bound with the same ropes – did not originate with him, but with lesser-known conjurers of the mid-to-late 19th century. “Houdini did not invent Metamorphosis,” Posnaski acknowledges. “Trunk escapes had been around for half a century.”

Instead, he worked diligently and creatively to improve the trick, both as technician and showman. This hard work demanded no small amount of tinkering and careful reconstruction, as well as a healthy dose of practiced legerdemain. The same was true of Houdini’s escapes from water tanks and more elaborate contraptions as his career wore on.

Magic, per Posnaski, is not “about fooling people, not exactly,” but instead “spark[ing] wonder.” Yet that wonder emerges organically from dedication to craft, unashamedly borrowing from earlier giants, and stepwise, gradual improvement.

Failure Breeds Success

Failure constitutes another critical ingredient in creative invention. Edison’s technical and financial failures were legion, yet nearly all of them somehow presaged success to come.

The great inventor labored for years to improve Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone but came up short, in part because his vision of the machine required an operator to field and transcribe all calls on behalf of the recipient. Yet Edison’s persistent experimentation with the reproduction and transmission of sound undeniably sparked his most original invention: the phonograph.

That machine also reflected Edison’s incomparable ability to overcome great difficulties, in this case his complete deafness in one ear and 50 percent loss of hearing in the other. Even this severe disability did not inhibit his tremendous achievements in the field of sound and may even have impelled them.

In addition, on numerous occasions throughout his life, the great inventor “brought Edison Industries to the brink of financial collapse,” due to his domineering management style. As a young man, Edison barely stayed a step ahead of the bill collectors, and later in life, his megalomania nearly brought ruin to his workshop. Yet somehow his genius enabled him to overcome these pecuniary challenges, his sense of near-desperation stoking his creativity.

Even at the end of his indescribably fruitful career, Edison encountered notable disappointment when he tried unsuccessfully to cultivate rubber plants in the United States, partly at the behest of his friend Harvey Firestone and the American government, who sought to replicate domestically the miracle plant’s economic and security benefits. He experimented with a range of species, including guayule, goldenrod, milkweed, and banyan, ultimately to find no combination of soil, climate, and variety nearly as productive as those in the East Indies. Yet even Edison’s rubber failure paid dividends, as his botanical inquiries led to patented improvements on paper and pulp processing.

Houdini struggled mightily for years with disappointing turnout at shows, failed ventures like the Houdini School of Magic, and even on-stage flops, all before earning his big break by doggedly and determinedly plying and promoting his craft, willing his way to success.

In particular, he refined his handcuff escape trick and took it on the road to police stations, where in five minutes or less he shimmied his way out of ten or more sets of handcuffs on his wrists and ankles. As importantly, he documented these exploits by ghost-writing or planting newspaper items about them, unembarrassedly naked self-promotion that eventually caught the eye of impresario Martin Beck, who in March 1899 offered Houdini second-billing on his first major show in Omaha. He wowed that Nebraska audience, as well as subsequent ones, and continued to generate – in all senses of the word – great press that in turn generated higher-profile performances.

Spectacle and Flair

Since the 19th century, showmanship and pizzazz have characterized American innovation nearly as much as the underlying technology they showcased. The modern-day equivalents of this combination of spectacle and innovation were Steve Jobs’s legendary 2000’s-era keynote presentations, where showmanship, drama, imagination, and engineering admixed to tremendous technological and economic success.

Critical to the magical nature of invention is the mystery behind it. Essential to that mystery is our inexorable urge to uncover the secrets, to figure how just how the practitioner managed to pull it off. Just as important is the realization that we may never know.

Barrels of ink have been spilled by writers speculating about the subterfuges behind Houdini’s tricks. Posnaski devotes four whole chapters to attempts to debunk his famous Mirror Cuffs trick, where the magician spent an anxious, sweaty, bloody hour wriggling out of a custom-made set of unbreakable restraints fashioned from a single piece of metal.

But generally, magicians don’t reveal their secrets, and we prefer things that way. Part of us yearns to understand the science of magic, but another part steadfastly resists. Indeed, most of Houdini’s tricks were carried out under a shroud or behind a screen, which far from diminishing their effect intensified it.

Posnaski quotes the great Ken Kesey, who described the magic of the Grateful Dead as “a crack in your mind, and you know it’s a trick, but you can’t figure it out.” Contemporary masters like David Copperfield, Joshua Jay, and even Penn and Teller inspire us by not sharing their tricks, by making sure that Keseyan crack remains just that. “The secret of showmanship,” Houdini wrote in The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin, “consists not of what you really do, but what the mystery-loving public thinks you do.”

The same can be said of the elegance of Edison’s phonograph. When he first presented his “recording telephone” to Scientific American in December 1877, the editors struggled to understand not only how it functioned but more fundamentally how such a device could physically be possible.

“No matter how familiar a person may be with modern machinery,” the magazine declared, “it is impossible to listen to the mechanical speech without his experiencing the idea that his senses are deceiving him.” Not for nothing did the phonograph earn Edison the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” reflecting the sorcery cast by his magical invention.

Equally impressive was the spectacle of Edison’s large-scale illumination projects, first in Menlo Park, then later at exhibitions in Paris and London, and most dramatically in Lower Manhattan, where, in September 1882, Edison’s Pearl Street substation lit up 51 blocks of the Big Apple, including more than 15,000 individual lamps.

This lighting revolution, Morris reckons, marked “an end to the counterbalance of night and day that had obtained for all of human history, mocking the attempts of torchbearers and lamplighters and gas companies to alter it with their puny waves of flame.” Likewise, the first public demonstration of his Kinetograph—an early moving-picture playback device—produced a “vision of a new medium … so strange as to defeat initial comprehension.”

So while Americans have always sought to understand the nature of invention, we also relish the mystery and spectacle of it all, the wizardry and showmanship that amplify its effect.

Inventive Departures

When great creators pass on, it augments the mythology surrounding their lives. This is partly a function of tragedy, of course; think of the many performing artists (Hendrix, Cobain, Winehouse, Ledger) whose promising careers were both curtailed and enhanced by heartbreaking, untimely deaths. The deaths of inventors also inspire another sentiment: the very fact of their disappearance and subsequent inability to foster additional breakthroughs makes us appreciate their existing accomplishments all the more.

Houdini, for instance, famously died at age 52 from a stomach punch. Or did he? Always on the cutting edge, the magician sought yet another strenuous challenge by inviting audience members to punch him as hard as they could. Several days and numerous performances in multiple cities after absorbing seven savage blows to the midsection, Houdini succumbed.

But even this death is shrouded in mystery, as most scholars believe Houdini actually perished from untreated appendicitis, perhaps (but perhaps not?) exacerbated by the stomach punches. The legend transcends the facts, however. “I don’t think Houdini would be Houdini if he didn’t have the strange death,” Jay tells Posnaski. “He was gone too soon, when we was still at his peak.”

Other inventors like Jobs also died notably and tragically young, trailing the same kind of mythical legacy as Houdini. While Apple remains a remarkably successful company, its founder’s death from cancer nearly a decade ago has deprived it of its magical aura.

Edison lived nearly 84 years, but suffered late in life from gastroparesis and other abdominal conditions, to which he eventually yielded. No youngster, to be sure, Edison died still very much at the height of his powers, amidst his rubber experiments and other ongoing projects that could have contributed much to the world.

Also wrapped in an enigma were his other departures, such as from the Edison General Electric Company he founded, from which he was ousted in the 1890s and whose corporate name unceremoniously excised any mention of him; from Menlo Park, where a financial and real estate land dispute resulted in his relocation to Manhattan and then West Orange; or from his project to develop the Kinetograph, initially a self-contained box, into a projection system.

Invention and Imagination

More broadly, it’s no surprise that the efflorescence of creativity and technological progress in the late 19th and early 20th century, which set the mold for American inventiveness going forward, coincided with the heyday of giants like Houdini and Edison. How these titans got their starts, improved existing ideas, failed, wowed, and departed the scene all shed light on how we understand creativity and imagination.

“Mark the spirit of invention everywhere,” wrote Walt Whitman, whose death coincided with the inventive explosion inaugurated by Houdini, Edison, and their ilk, “thy rapid patents, thy continual workshops, foundries, risen or rising, See, from their chimneys how the tall flame-fires stream.”

Indeed, American invention involves nearly as much spirit as science, almost as much imagination as industry. The human condition, or at least its American instantiation, draws inspiration from both sources, as great creators like Edison and Houdini definitively demonstrated in life and death.