Houdini – Escapologist & Technologist

Over the Winter Holiday break, Hui and I took in the exhibit “Houdini: Art and Magic” at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.  Unfortunately, Alex could not accompany us. So, I took lots of notes in order to assemble a story of Houdini for Alex.

McManus-Young Collection, Library of Congress

Harry Houdini was a magician who used showmanship to make his tricks into a performance where hearts raced, heads turned away, and people were left amazed. He seemed to be able to escape from anything. He starred in films. He produced movies. He read everything he could find about magic, escapes, illusions, and the super natural. To learn more about the details of Houdini’s life, click here. To know more about Houdini’s as a technologist, read on!

At the exhibit, I discovered Houdini was always using technology to improve his magic act. Whether it be new rope or improved locks or stronger steel he identified new technologies that he could use to impress audiences even more. Despite the fact that the information super highway would not exist for another 100 years, Houdini managed to tap into a variety of data and information in his day.

Houdini as a Technologist

King of Handcuffs! He even came to call himself Harry Handcuff Houdini. People were always developing new handcuffs and challenging him to escape from them. How did he get so good at escaping from handcuffs? As a young man living in Appleton, Wisconsin, he apprenticed with a locksmith. Houdini learned how to make locks and how to open locks. As handcuffs are essentially locks, Houdini knew all to well how to escape. 100 years ago, each city’s police department thought their handcuffs were the best and the strongest. So wherever Houdini travelled, he was challenged to escape from all kinds of handcuffs. Through these continual challenges, Houdini managed always be researching and learning about handcuffs. So, by staying current with developments in lock and handcuffs, Houdini managed to defy police departments and to amaze his audiences.

Images from Wiki Commons

Houdini as a Collaborator

Although Houdini’s formal education time was limited, he constantly read to improve himself. He eventually came to reside in New York City, the epicenter of immigration in the US. He worked in dime museums, sideshows, and traveling circuses. He met amazing people from all over the world. He listened and learned fascinating stories of strange and enchanting tricks. He would learn the tricks and then add a bit of showmanship to turn them into extraordinary performances.In the  Needle Threading Trick, Houdini would swallow needles and thread, separately. Miraculously he would pull the needles from his mouth threaded. Although the trick is credited with an East Indian origin, the museum indicated the trick came from Russia. My point, Houdini collected data in the form of stories and tricks. He assessed it, tagged it, and then repackaged things for others to enjoy.

Houdini as as a Life Long Learner

He was always shopping for the next trick whether at home or on the road. He was always in top physical shape. As a boy, he was a star cross country runner. At age nine, he preformed as a trapeze artist at age nine in his own back yard. Houdini kept his abdominal muscles so strong it was like punching a tree. He dove off bridges into rivers in handcuffs. He escaped from straight jackets suspended in mid air. He submerged himself in locked milk cans and chambers full of water. Houdini could control his breathing and could even hold his breath for up to seven minutes. He learned to fly. He could project his voice and appear to be in two places at once. Houdini never stopped pushing himself to learn new things.

In today’s collaborative Youtube available information society, would Houdini be the man he was? As we break down the barriers of different cultures, societies, and access to data, so much of what is amazing we take for granted. The world needs more than ever, more people like Houdini who add some showmanship and leave us all wanting a little bit more.


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