Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin
Jean Eugene Robert
Magician, Inventor, Writer
Place of Birth
Robert-Houdin possessed the ability of creative genius. His originality was aided by his vast knowledge in the technology of clockmaking.
It was his knowledge of complex mechanisms which led to his development of "Automata," of which one of his most famous automatons was "The Orange Tree."
Escape artist icon Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss) was so impressed by Robert-Houdin that after reading his autobiography in 1890, Ehrich adopted the stage name of "Houdini" in honor of Robert-Houdin.
Robert-Houdin was born Jean Eugene Robert in Blois, France, on December 7, 1805.
His father Prosper Robert was one of the best watchmakers in Blois. Robert-Houdin's mother, the former Marie-Catherine Guillon, died when he was just a child.
At 18, after Robert-Houdin graduated from the University of Orléans, he returned to Blois where he followed in his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker.
After his father's retirement, Robert-Houdin worked for his cousin's watch shop where he worked as a watchmaker for a short time.
Robert-Houdin's introduction to magic came rather fortuitously. In the mid 1820's, Young Jean saved up enough money, and had a two-volume set of books on clock making by "Ferdinand Berthoud" reserved, wrapped and ready to take home.
However, when he got home and opened the wrapping, instead of the Berthoud books, he discovered a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements.
Instead of returning the books, he found himself lost in the art of conjuring. He processed all the information from those two-volumed books, and learned the fundamentals of magic, practicing at all hours of the day.
Robert-Houdin began taking lessons from a local amateur magician named Maous from Blois who was a podiatrist, but also entertained at fairs and festivals performing magic. He taught Jean how to juggle, and the rudiments of the cups and balls.
As soon as he gained confidence and skill through his lessons, he began entertaining friends, and later at social parties as a professional magician. He met Josephe Cecile Houdin, the daughter of a Parisian watchmaker, Monsieur Jacques François Houdin.
It was love at first sight for Jean, and on July 8, 1830, they were married. He hyphenated his own name to hers and became Robert-Houdin. Together they had eight children, of whom three survived.
He and Josephe moved to Paris, and Jean worked in his father-in-law's wholesale shop. While M. Houdin worked in the main shop, Robert-Houdin was tinkering with the mechanical toys and automatons.
Still practicing his magic, Robert-Houdin frequented a magic shop the Rue Richelieu, and learned the workings to many of the mechanical tricks of the time.
From there, he built his own mechanical figures, like a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, and an automaton of a magician performing the cups and balls. His most acclaimed automaton was his writing and drawing figure, which was displayed before King Louis Philippe and eventually sold it to P. T. Barnum in 1844.
Robert-Houdin began constructing equipment for his own use instead of selling it to others. The money from the shop and his new inventions, gave him enough money to experiment on new tricks utilizing glass apparatus that would be free of trickery.
He dreamed of opening his own theatre in Paris; that dream came to fruition when Count de l’Escalopier fronted Jean 15,000 francs which gave him the opportunity to finish the creations he was building for a magic theatre which he was soon to open in Paris.
On July 3, 1845, Robert-Houdin debuted his 200 seat theatre in what he called "Soirées Fantastiques." Despite his exquisite display of inventions, his show was scarcely attended. He needed an attraction that would bring the public to his little theatre.
So he came upon the idea of doing a two person mentalist act entitled, "Second Sight," In which his son, blindfolded on stage, correctly identified objects held by his father in the audience. The act was a success and drew audiences from all around Paris; once there, they were exposed to Jean's demonstrations of mechanical figures.
His contribution to magic brought new dimensions to the art. His innovative inventions in automata; being one of the first magicians to utilize electricity in his act, and his style in elegant evening attire set him apart from other magicians who generally wore wizard robes.
Robert-Houdin's gave his last public performance at the Grand Theatre in Marseille, before retiring to his home in Saint-Gervais near his native Blois.
He wrote several books on the art of magic, including his famous memoirs, "Confidences d'un Prestidigitateur."
On June 13, 1871, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin died of Pneumonia at the age of sixty-five. Though he established only eleven years of show business notoriety, his innovation, repertoire and showmanship has dubbed him "The Father of Modern Magic."
Return from Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin to Card Magicians page.