While still a notary’s copyist, Robert-Houdin had spent many spare moments outfitting a birdcage that he found in the office waiting room with mechanical amusements for the resident birds and their human spectators. In one part of the cage, to which a bird was attracted by food, the avian resident unexpectedly found himself in the shower room rather than the dining room. In another, the imaginative copyist had contrived things such that a bird in approaching some seed pushed a lever that actually moved the food farther away. One could almost measure the two vectors, mechanical inventiveness and theatrical illusionism, determining the future course of Robert-Houdin’s life.
The same incident also showed that, as a result of these two forces acting on his life, Robert-Houdin would never make a good employee: “I could not resolve to limit my imagination to the execution of other people’s ideas; I wanted at all costs to invent or to perfect. All my life I have been ruled by this passion, or, if you like, by this mania.” Thus he continued to work on his own projects as well as those of his employer after being hired by his father-in-law, who apparently indulged him. We know little more than this about Robert-Houdin’s activities from 1830 until 1837, when he took out his first patent, for a Réveil-Briquet (Alarm Clock-Lighter). Before the invention of the electric light, when one arose before dawn one had to fumble around in the dark for matches to light the lamps or candles. Robert-Houdin’s device lit a candle at the same time that it sounded an alarm bell to awaken the sleeper, thus obviating fumbling. Other inventions soon followed, a timely development for Robert-Houdin, since in 1838 Monsieur Houdin was bankrupted by the bankruptcy of his notary. The father-in-law lost his business but soon found employment with a leading clockmaker of Paris; the son-in-law decided to go it alone. The Réveil-Briquet awakened Robert-Houdin from the nightmare of working for others. Indeed, as a result of improvements to it patented in 1840, he became an employer himself. He hired several workers to increase production and to give himself the free time to realize new ideas.
In 1839 he showed two inventions at the Exposition des Produits de l’Industrie, which had become a regular, quinquenniel event. One of them, perhaps his first automaton, represented that archetypal sleight-of-hand artist, the cups-and-ball manipulator. The second made Robert-Houdin’s name as a clockmaker. The Pendule Mystérieuse (Mysterious Clock) had a dial that consisted of two parallel clear-glass disks of the same size joined by a metal band at their circumferences; that is, one could see all the way through the clock, which sat on a table rather than hanging on a wall. The minute and hour hands rotated between the two glass disks, pivoting around a peg that joined the centers of the two disks, the minute hand extending to their circumferences. The dial perched atop a narrow clear-glass cylinder, whose bottom end fit into the housing of the clockworks. Thus, there seemed to be nothing to communicate movement from the works to the hands of the clock, a transparent deception. In fact, a second glass cylinder rotating inside the narrow glass cylinder that held the dial aloft connected the clockworks to a second metal band, just inside the first one, the one that joined the circumferences of the glass disks. This second band rotated almost invisibly, hidden by the fixed outer band. The pointer end of the clock’s minute hand was connected to the second band, so that the minute hand rotated as the band rotated. Tiny gears connected the minute hand to the hour hand at the pivot in the center of the dial. In its report on the exposition the Moniteur universel called the Pendule Mystérieuse “the most remarkable” of the many clocks exhibited there. “We render full justice to the inventive skill of M. Robert-Houdin in acknowledging that he has made a truly remarkable piece; but we can only regret that he has expended so much talent with the sole purpose of torturing the minds of his colleagues, when he could have employed the resources of his fertile imagination more usefully.” The judges of the exposition awarded him a bronze medal.
The goal of mounting the stage one day always remained in the back of Robert-Houdin’s mind. During the late 1830s and early 1840s he applied much of his inventive energy to automata. In addition to the cups-and-ball manipulator, he built a mechanical orange tree that produced first flowers and then fruit in a short space of time, some singing birds à la Jaquet-Droz, a trapeze acrobat à la Maelzel, a writing and sketching figure à la Jaquet-Droz, and two clowns; he also rebuilt the Componium of a German mechanician named Koppen. This machine did not compose, like Winkel’s Componium, but imitated a full orchestra, like Maelzel’s Panharmonicon.
Robert-Houdin made his mechanical orange tree look as much like the real thing as possible. It represented a fully foliated, dwarf tree and sat on a table. Some of its “branches,” in reality hollow metal tubes, held concealed within their ends folded-up paper or silk “flowers” and, just behind the flowers, deflated “oranges.” Air secretly pumped into the tubes forced the flowers to gradually emerge and open up, or “blossom.” More air pushed the oranges out, causing the flowers to flutter down, and then swelled the oranges in a simulation of growth.
He named his two mechanical clowns after two well-known human clowns of the time, Auriol and Deburau: “The latter held firmly above his head a chair, on which his happy comrade gamboled, did gymnastics, and executed feats of strength, just like the artist of the Champs-Élysées circus. After these exercises, my Auriol smoked a pipe and finished the session by accompanying on a small flageolet a melody played by the orchestra.” 
Koppen’s Componium had been disassembled sometime after its exhibition in Paris in 1829, Robert-Houdin writes, and its pieces bought by someone he refers to as D***. The new owner had advertised for a mechanician to reassemble it, and Robert-Houdin had presented himself. “They brought me, in a vast room that was to serve as my workshop, all the boxes containing the pieces of the Componium and emptied them pell-mell onto some bedsheets that had been laid out on the floor for this purpose.” He relates that it took him a year to do it, but that he put all the pieces back together again and made a working machine.
Robert-Houdin’s Écrivain-Dessinateur (Writer-Sketcher) brought him more recognition than any other creation of this period of his life. In order to produce it and one other automaton, a singing and fluttering night-ingale for which he had an order from Russia, he secluded himself for eighteen months in an apartment in the quiet suburb of Belleville, leaving his Paris workshop under the supervision of one of his employees and seeing his family just twice a week. The Écrivain-Dessinateur represented a nobleman whose dress, chair, and writing table were all in the style of the period of Louis XV. Thus, it harked back to the days of the Écrivain, Dessinateur, and Musicienne of the Jaquet-Drozes. It seems likely that Robert-Houdin had at least read about these three if he had not actually seen them. After they were sold by the Jaquet-Drozes in 1789, they reappeared in Paris intermittently in exhibitions and magic shows, as did one or two of the Jaquet-Droz-Maillardet combination Écrivain-Dessinateurs. Robert-Houdin may have gotten the idea for his automaton from one of these pieces, or he may have copied the mechanism, or he may even have bought and reworked an existing Écrivain-Dessinateur. Some of the sketches made by the Robert-Houdin piece are quite similar to those made by the original Jaquet-Droz Dessinateur. In any case, Robert-Houdin showed his Écrivain-Dessinateur at the exposition of 1844 and won a silver medal. King Louis-Philippe, on his tour of the exhibits, stopped to see the mechanician put the figure through its paces and expressed his admiration. One of the judges at the exposition, however, repeated the admonition of five years earlier: “It is really too bad, M. Robert-Houdin, that you have not applied to serious works the mental effort that you have expended in such whimsical objects.” He sold the automaton that same year or the next to P-T. Barnum for “a good round price,” probably to help finance the construction of a theater of magic. Barnum, who was touring Europe, sent it back to his American Museum, located in New York City, where it could be seen until the museum burned down in 1865.
Robert-Houdin’s nightingale is also reminiscent of the works of the father and son Jaquet-Droz, a name that does not appear in any of his writings. In his autobiography he tells how he used to go out to the woods and climb trees so as to be able to hear the bird’s song more clearly, listening carefully and then trying to imitate it. Next he had to contrive a whistle mechanism that would reproduce the sounds he heard. Finally, “I had also to animate this bird: I was supposed to make it move its beak in time with the sounds it emitted, beat its wings, jump from branch to branch, etc.” He sold this piece, too, for a large sum.
If Robert-Houdin had done nothing more than duplicate or reinvent automata that had been first created a half-century earlier, he would not be entitled to a prominent place in the history of their evolution. But finally his turn came to be a true creator in the art of automaton-building.
He hit upon one novel idea so striking that he used it as the basis of at least three different mechanical pieces. Each piece was sized to sit on a table. Each had its works in a large ornate base on which was posed a small interior scene containing a human figure. In one, the figure represented a young woman in Turkish costume seated on an ottoman and shaded by a fringed parasol. In another, a woman in a mid-nineteenth-century dress sat on a Louis XV chair at a Louis XV table, on which rested an ornate clock of the same vintage. In the third, another woman in contemporary clothes stood at the railing of a landing at the top of a short flight of stairs. Each mechanical woman held a serinette. Each addressed a mechanical canary sitting on a perch arising from a base appropriate to the decor of the scene. The woman cranked the serinette, which played a tune. The canary imitated it imperfectly. The woman cranked again and this time the canary imitated it more accurately. The lesson continued until the canary, from “hearing” it repeatedly, “learned” the tune.
We have seen that the eighteenth-century vogue for canaries, and for teaching canaries to sing human songs, led to the invention of organized flageolets, then to serinettes, and finally to mechanical singing birds. But in this last phase the learning process had disappeared. Robert-Houdin restored it, and without sacrificing any of the previous mechanical advances, indeed adding an advance of his own, by combining a serinette, a mechanical bird, and an android into a single complex mechanical masterpiece. In the century and a half since, there have been no more advances. To a machine that imitates song, and a machine that imitates a singer of a song, he added a machine that imitates a teacher of a song, but still there is no machine that imitates a creator of a song
While working as a clockmaker and building automata, Robert-Houdin attended magic shows often and watched the magicians closely. He criticized their deceptions in Confidences et révélations, just as Houdini would later criticize his deceptions in The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin.
there is no machine that imitates a creator
there is no machine
Robert-Houdin employs here a somewhat dated vocabulary, current in the second half of the eighteenth century, when scientists and popularizers of science performed tricks illustrating such little-understood phenom-ena as magnetism. The tricks were called “experiments” (expériences), the performers “physicists” (physiciens), and the performances “scientific amusements” (physique amusante). This terminology was adopted by conjurers who had no particular interest in recent discoveries in physics and whose acquaintance with science went no further than a practical psychology of deception. Whether or not Comte’s program was dated, he had other things to recommend him. He excelled at ventriloquism. And his way of flattering the women in the audience in his patter taught Robert-Houdin a lesson, in what to avoid as well as in what to imitate. “Just as Comte was friendly toward the ladies, he was merciless toward the gentlemen.” Robert-Houdin learned that gallantry toward the members of the audience could gain a performer many adherents, and he himself resolved to be gallant toward all.
My first care, upon arriving in Paris, had been to attend some performances of [Louis-Apollinaire] Comte, who had reigned for a long time in his theater in the Choiseul Arcade. This famous physicist was already resting on his laurels, and only performed once a week.…Comte’s experiments were almost all drawn from a repertoire with which I was perfectly familiar: It was that of Torrini and of all the conjurers of the period.
He also saw the well-known Italian conjurer Bartolomeo Bosco and appears to have been somewhat mystified by his popularity. He found him still doing the old cups-and-ball routine: “I would never have thought that in the year of grace 1838 one would have dared to perform it inside a theater. This was all the more improbable in that every day one saw in the streets of Paris two outdoor artists, Miette and Lesprit, who had no fear of rivals.” Perhaps Bosco’s most celebrated trick consisted of decapitating two pigeons, one white and one black, putting the corpses in a box, and retrieving from the same box two live pigeons, one with a white body and a black head, the other with a black body and a white head. Robert-Houdin was offended by this cruelty toward animals and concluded that the audience must have believed Bosco did not really kill the pigeons he appeared to decapitate.
Philippe Talon, billed simply as Philippe, arrived in Paris in 1841 and had his own theater, the Palais des Prestiges (Palace of Prodigies), built soon thereafter. Robert-Houdin describes Philippe’s entrance: “An orchestra, composed of six musicians of debatable talent, performed a symphony with the help of a Mélophone.” Then the magician appeared, barely visible on the darkened stage, and fired a pistol, whereupon dozens of candles instantly blazed to light, thanks to an almost invisible electrical wire with gaps across the candle wicks and hidden jets of hydrogen gas just behind the wicks. Philippe exhibited several automata:
In a celebrated trick that Robert-Houdin later adopted for his own use, Philippe made appear from under a shawl a large glass bowl of water, open on top, in which goldfish could be seen swimming.
the Cossack, which one could equally well have called the Grimacer, on account of the comical contortions he underwent; what’s more, this Cossack was a very skillful conjurer, because he adroitly slipped into his pockets various pieces of jewelry that his master had borrowed from the spectators;
the Magic Peacock, which emitted an unmelodious warble, and which displayed its sumptuous plumage and ate out of one’s hand;
and finally a Harlequin, like that which Torrini had had.
Robert-Houdin finally opened his own theater of magic, built to his design. Its two hundred seats filled up and stayed filled from almost the first performance, on 5 July 1845. On 6 July the Moniteur universel gave the “Soirées Fantastiques” a warm, if brief, recommendation. On 10 July, the Charivari told its readers: “You will wonder whether M. Robert-Houdin deserves to be burned or worshipped.…It’s the science of Vaucanson, Maelzel, and Stévenard combined with the art of Bosco, Comte, and Philippe; it’s mechanics and prestidigitation united, and all that in a charming hall decorated with taste.” Style Louis XV, of course. By 19 July, he rated almost an entire page, with engraving, in the weekly Illustration. An invitation the following year to give a performance in the palace at Saint-Cloud for the family of King Louis-Philippe put the royal seal on his success.
Several of the automata Robert-Houdin presented in his Soirées Fantastiques have already been mentioned. In addition to the cups-and-ball manipulator, the orange tree, the clowns Auriol and Deburau, and the trapeze acrobat, he also showed a Garde-Française (National Guardsman) and his celebrated Pâtissier du Palais-Royal (Pastry Cook of the Palais-Royal). The fully uniformed Garde-Française stood about two feet tall on a small base. From his place on a table, he saluted the spectators, “blew several kisses to the children he saw in the hall,” and appeared to shoot onto a crystal column standing on another table several rings borrowed from women in the audience and loaded into his musket by Robert-Houdin.
The Palais-Royal, whose long wings had been partitioned into spaces for retail shops and whose large courtyard sheltered more dubious enterprises under wooden arcades, had functioned as a sort of year-round fair since the 1780s. By the 1840s many pleasure-seekers had deserted it for the Grand Boulevards, though its restaurants and pastry shops still maintained their superior savor, among them Gendron’s, where Carême had worked. An attached building still housed the Comédie-Française, and the Palais-Royal itself housed several other theaters. Robert-Houdin chose to build his own small theater there and thus called his new automaton the Pâtissier du Palais-Royal. His mechanical pastry cook bustled in and out of a large rectangular cabinet, about the same size as the cabinet of Kempelen’s Chess Player, that is, about four feet wide, two and a half feet deep, and three feet high, decorated to look like a pastry shop. “Warm brioches just out of the oven, cakes of all sorts, syrups, liqueurs, ices, etc., are brought by him as soon as the spectators have asked for them.” In addition to bringing the particular items ordered by the spectators, Robert-Houdin’s pastry cook also gave them the correct change when they paid him. The Pâtissier could think as well as the Chess Player.
A year before Robert-Houdin opened his theater,
In short, there was no connection between the seed ingested by Vaucanson’s duck and the excreted waste. The latter had been prepared in advance simply to look its part and be expelled at the appropriate time. “This artifice, far from changing the high opinion that I had conceived of Vaucanson, on the contrary inspired me with a double admiration for his knowledge (savoir) and his savoir-faire.” Some doubt whether Robert-Houdin ever saw the real Canard of Vaucanson; they suspect he may have seen a copy, of which at least one is known to have existed. No matter, for Vaucanson’s canard was real enough and had been exposed as early as 1783 by C.-F. Nicolaï. Nicolaï had seen the Canard in Nuremberg, where it had been left by one of the Lyon entrepreneurs who had bought it from Vaucanson in 1743. He published his description of the deception in a travel book. Furthermore, the Canard had been restored and exhibited in Milan if not also in Paris, and written up, around the time Robert-Houdin claimed to have seen it.
The Canard of Vaucanson himself was exhibited at Paris in a hall in the Palais-Royal. I was, as one can imagine, among the first to attend, and left struck with admiration at the numerous and skillful devices in this masterpiece of mechanics.
Some time later, one of the wings of the automaton having been rendered inoperable, the repair was entrusted to me and I was initiated into the celebrated mystery of the digestion. To my great astonishment, I saw that the illustrious master had not disdained to have recourse to an artifice that I would not have disowned in a conjuring trick. The digestion, the tour de force of his automaton; the digestion, so pompously trumpeted in his memoir, was only a mystification, a true canard. Decidedly, Vaucanson was not only my master in mechanics; I had also to bow before his genius at conjuring.
Nor had the punctilious Swiss mountain dwellers the Jaquet-Drozes been entirely above deception. Johann Bernoulli had described a perplexing feature of the Écrivain: “The mechanism of the writing automaton is inconceivable, especially because it can write any word of French and can even, after it has begun to write a word that has been dictated to it, as soon as one orders it to leave off this word and write another, break off and begin to write the other.” According to a biopsy of the Écrivain performed a century and a quarter later:
Robert-Houdin’s Garde-Française was likewise controlled from outside by means of hidden wires and pedals, and thus not a true automaton. And the magician’s young son was hiding inside his miniature pastry shop and serving as the pâtissier’s indispensable assistant.
There have survived down to this day some quite delicate levers, with eyelets for attaching wires to, levers which are no longer in use. One likewise sees numerous holes and notches into which must have been placed pieces now missing. The base, covered with velours, is riddled with holes and furrowed with converging grooves; one of the legs of the table is pierced through its entire length, and little mortises, cut into the corners, must have held tiny pulleys serving to guide the wire(s) and to lead them down to the floor. These wires must have been operated by one or two pedals.
Robert-Houdin’s most renowned and most imitated trick, Seconde Vue (Second Sight), his new version of an old routine, also involved his son. In this case, the audience was hidden from his son, rather than vice versa. His son sat blindfolded on stage while Robert-Houdin himself roamed through the audience asking the spectators to hand him any object whatsoever and having his son describe the object in detail after “seeing” it with “second sight.” 
The success of Seconde Vue notwithstanding, Robert-Houdin was much better known for his mechanical than for his nonmechanical tricks. One of the newspaper accounts of the opening of his theater reported that,
The demand for his machines among other magicians continued. A few years later the Moniteur universel reported in its column of lawcourt news: “No sooner had Legrand left him [Robert-Houdin] than he heard from all quarters that this worker had committed the greatest acts of betrayal toward him, that he had copied and sold most of his mechanical pieces. A search of Legrand’s residence uncovered a large number of objects belonging to M. Robert-Houdin or reproduced from originals invented by him.” Legrand was convicted of fraud, or illegal imitation and deception.
M. Robert-Houdin, the high priest of this temple, walking in the footsteps of Vaucanson and Maelzel, is less a physicist than a skillful mechanician, who, tired of building for every magician past and present the ingenious devices that have made their whole reputation, believes it is high time for him to bring directly before the public a series of entertainments all the more perfect in that he has prepared them for his own use and in order to demonstrate his talent as a mechanician.
Considering his subsequent stature among professional magicians, Robert-Houdin’s stage career did not last very long. From 1845 to 1848 he performed mostly in his own Soirées Fantastiques, sometimes also doing a few tricks at one or another variety theater in Paris. In 1846 he gave a short series of performances in Belgium. The Revolution of 1848 drove him across the Channel to Great Britain. He began at the Théâtre Français in London in May 1848, and success following success, performed twice for Queen Victoria, toured extensively in England, Ireland, and Scotland, and did not return to France until October 1849. Upon the resumption of his Soirées Fantastiques, Robert-Houdin conceived the idea of training a successor, who began to spell him as early as the summer of 1850 and in January 1852 bought his theater. The not-quite-retired magician performed intermittently in England, Belgium, and France from the summer of 1852 to the summer of 1853; made a tour of the spas of Germany in the fall of 1853; and concluded his career with a three-month run in Berlin in the winter of 1853–54.
Robert-Houdin engaged in several duels of magic. He boasts that when he opened his show in London in May 1848 he stole the audience of John Henry Anderson, a Scottish magician who had been performing there for some time. While the Frenchman continued to give essentially the same program he had been giving in Paris, the Scot’s program changed dramatically and many of his new tricks were obvious copies of or responses to Robert-Houdin’s. Anderson had his revenge in 1853, however, when the Frenchman’s second sojourn in England consisted of only a few scattered shows, a sojourn he does not even mention in his autobiography.
Robert-Houdin relates that the “physicist” Comte once came to see him perform at his theater in the Palais-Royal. Comte stayed after the show to chat, after which Robert-Houdin escorted his guest down the stairs to the outside door. At that point he heard what sounded like one of his cashiers calling him from the top of the stairs. His guest offered to wait until the presumably minor problem was taken care of before saying good night. The host ascended the stairs again but could find no one around and finally realized that Comte had duped him with ventriloquism.
So saying, Robert-Houdin returned the handkerchief and snuff box he had picked from Comte’s pocket when they had descended the stairs together earlier. That is how Robert-Houdin tells it in his autobiography, anyway. There is a French idiom, avoir l’esprit de l’escalier, “to have staircase wit,” which means to think of good responses belatedly, as one is descending the staircase to depart, whether from a soirée, from a career, or from life.
I calmly descended.
“What did that person from your ticket office want?” Comte asked me, sounding well-satisfied with his deception.
“Can’t you guess?” I responded, imitating his intonation.
“Then I will tell you: It was a repentent thief, who begged me to return these objects that he had taken from you. Here they are, my mentor!”
In 1856 the French colonial government in Algeria persuaded Robert-Houdin to step temporarily out of retirement and travel there on a quasi-official mission. The government’s problem was an insurgency movement among Arabs, fomented by marabouts, Muslim religious leaders, who demonstrated their divine protection by eating nails and crushed glass with impunity and performing other miracles. Robert-Houdin’s mission was “to show them we are their superiors in all things and that when it comes to sorcerers there is nothing to compare with the French.” The French governor invited a group of Arab chieftains to a theater, furnished them with translators, and turned the stage over to the magician. Robert-Houdin asked for volunteers from the audience for several of his tricks. One was in the tradition of physique amusante: He made a muscular Arab appear strong or weak at will by asking him several times to lift up a wooden box resting on the floor, which the Arab sometimes could and sometimes could not do, thanks to an iron plate inside the box and an electro-magnet directly beneath it just under the floorboards. Another, a variation on the William Tell trick, was strictly legerdemain: He had a marabout mark a bullet, load it into a pistol, and shoot it at him while he held up an apple on the end of a knife; after the shot he removed the marked bullet from inside the apple. The show seems to have impressed the chieftains, for they afterward gave him a placard-sized poetic homage in Arabic and French calligraphy, richly ornamented, and affixed with the seals of their tribes. The poet Baudelaire, less impressed, delivered this epithet: “It was appropriate that an unbelieving society should send Robert-Houdin to the Arabs to turn them away from miracles.”  Oddly, France’s avant-garde amoralist deplored the campaign to demoralize Algeria that he believed his country was engaged in, and he believed that the unbelieving magician had been engaged in the avant-garde of the campaign. Robert-Houdin criticized the deceptions of North African marabouts in the final pages of his autobiograpy, just as he had criticized the deceptions of European conjurers earlier in the same work.