The magician’s toilet

John Nevil Maskelyne was a turn of the century stage magician who created the first levitation trick, built an automaton that could play whist, revealed the secrets of card sharks, and invented the pay toilet.

John Nevil Maskelyne
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The other night I was re-watching the old Christopher Nolan film The Prestige, a tale of dueling stage magicians in 19th century London. Reading about its creation, I discovered that there really were battling stage magicians in 19th century London. One of them in particular, John Nevil Maskelyne, had one of those bizarre and noteworthy lives that I can’t resist sharing.

First, the duel. We begin with a signature illusion of the stage magician: the levitation trick. You’ve no doubt seen some version of this. An assistant (usually a woman) lies on a couch. At the magician’s direction, the assistant lifts into the air. The magician passes a metal hoop all around the floating figure to prove that there are no wires or supports. A performer named Harry Kellar was particularly famous for this trick:

Kellar's levitation poster
Strobridge Lithographing Co., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Just one problem: the trick was originally Maskelyne’s. Kellar copied it, either by sending a spy into Maskelyne’s camp or just rushing the stage himself to get a good close look.

Second, the automaton. Maskelyne created a “robot” that could play whist. Called “Psycho,” this mini mannequin picked cards out of a lineup with what appeared to be intelligence. Psycho was too small to hide a human inside (like the famous Mechanical Turk); we suspect that it was operated remotely by bursts of compressed air. This automaton is now part of the Museum of London.

Third, the secrets of the card sharks. In 1894, Maskelyne wrote Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. It was the first major work to go into detail about techniques like card shaving / trimming, manipulating fair dice for a specific result, and phony shuffles:

The pack is taken in two halves, one of which is held in each hand. From the right hand half about half a dozen cards are pushed off and placed beneath those in the left hand. Then, from the left hand, three cards say are pushed off and placed beneath those in the right hand. This process is continued, always putting more cards from right to left than vice versa, until the whole pack appears to have been shuffled into the left hand.

This looks exactly like a genuine shuffle. In fact, most persons upon having it explained to them will say that the cards really are shuffled, but it is not so. The effect produced is that of a simple cut. If the bridge is made before commencing, the process can be continued until the top card has resumed its former place. Then it will be found that there has been absolutely no disarrangement of the cards whatever.

Sharps and Flats

Fourth, the pay toilet. We have Maskelyne to thank for this civic abomination. He designed a lock which would open upon insertion of a penny, and these locks were installed on public toilets around London. Brits have apparently been using “spend a penny” to describe going to the toilet since at least the Forties – all thanks to Maskelyne.

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