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Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was a magician extraordinaire, a scientist, an inventor as well as a mechanical and horological genius. The third child of a Blois watchmaker Robert learned his trade in his father's workshop
'I am inclined to believe that I came into the world with a file or a hammer in my hand, for from my earliest youth, these implements were my toys and delight: I seemed to use them as other children learned to walk and talk.'
He created exciting automaton devices the like of which no one had seen before including mystery clocks that appeared to work by magic. He was famous around the world as France's most eminent magician and is regarded by modern-day conjurers as one of the founders of modern conjuring. Creating imaginative optical illusions and conjuring tricks using sleight of hand, Robert-Houdin combined his magical genius with his huge personality on stage using style and wit to capture his audiences' imaginations. These audiences often included the finest members of Society and even Royalty including Queen Victoria and Napoleon III.
Christened Jean Eugène Robert he married Josèphe Cécile Eglatine Houdin in July 1830 and added his wife's suname to his own. His new father-in-law was Jacques Houdin, one of France's finest makers of chronometers, regulators and astronomical clocks. His inventing flourished and in the Exhibition of French Industry in 1839 he showed a mystery clock that caused a sensation then later in the 1844 Exhibition he won the Gold Medal. His most famous automaton was the model of a man sitting at a desk that was abloe to write and draw, it was greatly admired by King Louis Philippe and then bought for the huge sum of $4,000 by the Great Barnum for his American Museum. His Soirées Fantastiques at the Palais Royal were packed performances with the best of Paris Society bringing him fame and fortune.
The Magic Clock (illus) was suspended by two thin cords with a glass bell below. At Robert-Houdin's command the hand moved back or forth to any number a member of the audience might suggest and the bell would then sound out the relative hour - either loud or soft - as requested. This feat was achieved using electricity, a subject that fascinated him for years and which lead to a close association with the eminent clockmaker Constantin Louis Detouche with whom he patented an ingenious electro-mechanical escapement (see following lot).
One hundred years ago Robert-Houdin was a household name and his fame stretched far across the globe. Rue Robert-Houdin can still be found in both Paris and Blois but today his namesake Houdini is remembered - yet it was Harry Houdini, born Ehrich Weiss, who changed his name in emulation of his hero Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin.