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The Science Behind The Ghost: A Brief History Of Pepper's Ghost by Jim Steinmeyer

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii August, 1999)


In the January 1995 issue of Genii I reviewed a recent reprint of Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin's posthumous work, Secrets of Stage Conjuring. In that review I wrote that the book contains "probably the most detailed examination of the Pepper's Ghost illusion to be found anywhere in the literature. Anyone who has been to the Haunted Mansion at one of the Disney parks will attest to the timeless beauty of this effect, and while this lengthy discussion is not the final word on the subject, it is nevertheless extremely thorough ..." And now Jim Steinmeyer has come along to provide us with what is quite possibly that final word—certainly the definitive discussion to date in the literature.

Jim Steinmeyer will already be known to readers as one of the preeminent illusion designers of our time. His credentials as author continue to mount impressively as well; his most recent hardcover effort, Art and — Artifice (reviewed in Genii, April 1999) has garnered him the same sort of critical praise that his previous titles, including Device and Elusion and The Magic of Alan Wakeling have received. Mr. Steinmeyer's latest effort is this lovely little history of the Pepper's Ghost illusion, a book prepared especially for the 1999 Convention of the Magic Collector's Association, limited to 150 copies, half of which were signed and numbered and sold at the recent convention in Chicago.

The author begins by pointing out that Pepper's Ghost "was developed beyond the realm of mere stage conjurers and became the property of impresarios and inventors; men of science and the theatre.... It was also the very first mirror illusion These facts provide ample justification for an entire manuscript devoted to this marvelous effect, beginning with a detailed examination of the historical record, and the disputed and controversial claims concerning the actual invention of the illusion. Despite the fact that authors like Henry Ridgely Evans and Ottokar Fischer have lent credence to the French conjuror Henri Robin's claim of original invention, nevertheless it seems a suspect one, dismissed by Robert-Houdin and examined in detail by Mr. Steinmeyer in primary sources. Robin's claim is connected to that of Pierre Seguin, a French painter who in 1852 patented an interesting toy, dubbed the polyoscope, which was a sort of miniature progenitor of the Ghost illusion.

The toy paved the way for illusions based upon reflected images, but it was not a success. Neither was a full theater-sized version of the illusion as described and patented in 1858—but never constructed—by a civil engineer named Henry Dircks. Does Dircks deserve credit for the Ghost, or does John Henry Pepper, Honorary Director of the London Royal Polytechnic, who may have, as Mr. Steinmeyer's describes it, "made an otherwise unattractive invention suit-able for the stage—and with his suggestion, an otherwise unoriginal idea worthy of a patent."

The issue turns on the question of Pepper's claimed improvement, namely the change from a vertical sheet of glass to an angled sheet, which provided dramatically improved sightlines for the audience, and a far more practical and adaptable arrangement for existing theaters, rather than Dircks' proposed two-level theater that would have had to have been built for the purpose. Dircks, who came to share the patent on the Ghost illusion with Pepper, nevertheless remained bitter over the general association of Pepper's name with the illusion; Dirks however never seemed to fully grasp the significance of Pepper's improvements, instead perversely viewing them as complicating factors.

The situation was no doubt aggravated by Pepper's success as an impresario and sort of scientific showman; interestingly, he would later introduce other mirror-based illusions to the public, including the Sphinx illusion, the Protean Cabinet, and Walker's Metempsychosis. That the Ghost illusion was a success is an understatement, and most contemporary readers will be unaware of the phenomenal commercial sensation the illusion became upon its release. Within a short time it was to be utilized by numerous theaters and exhibitors in both London and Paris. It was a stunning novelty, but one with limitations: Due to the thick glass separating the performers from the audience, all of the theatrical skits in which the Ghost appeared had to be performed in pantomime, since the actors couldn't be heard!

As in his previous book, Art and Artifice, the author's narrative reads not unlike a detective yarn, and he manages to spring a surprise on us (albeit previously touched upon by Sidney Clarke in Annals of Magic), namely that the invention of Black Art, commonly attributed to Max Auzinger and Bautier DeKolta, was in fact presaged by the Ghost illusion, and was indeed one of its "essential ingredients." The author reveals the details of an 1867 British patent by one Joseph Simmons—who may in fact be one and the same as the British magician known as Dr. Lynn—obtained no less than 18 years before Auzinger's apparent discovery of Black Art! Ironically, although this patent describes virtually every aspect of the Black Art principle in great detail, it omits one small but critical detail: the word "black" Noting this omission, along with the likely reasons for it, Mr. Steinmeyer then leads us through the further evolution of Black Art as used by Auzinger and DeKolta. He concludes his narrative with discussions of various late uses of the Ghost illusion, including in the cinema, in the aforementioned Disney Haunted Mansion, and other contemporary appearances, ending on a deliciously ironic note in which the illusion, mentioned in a 1983 scholarly article written by Laurence Senelick about its history, is ultimately misidentified and misunderstood.

While the narrative ends here, the reader has not yet reached the book's climax. Throughout the text, the author, through both narrative explication and elegantly simple diagrams, examines all of the science and technology of the illusion, including critical issues of lighting, sight lines, angles of reflection and the like, all in ways which will render these arcana transparent (as it were) to even the most unfamiliar reader. But at the conclusion of the narrative, and at the start of a sizeable grouping of reprinted historical patent diagrams and other illustrations from throughout the Ghost's published history, Mr. Steinmeyer has provided an extraordinarily clever demonstration of his own. By binding a transparent plastic page into the book—a simulacrum of the requisite pane of glass—between two accompanying illustrated pages, the reader is given the opportunity to create his or her own miniature, tabletop illusion!

Admittedly, if you've ever seen the actual illusion, with its deeply magical sense of moving three-dimensional apparitions from another dimension, this two-dimensional, static model will seem a poor imitation. Nevertheless, this delightful conception will not only crystallize the reader's understanding of the principles involved, permitting individual experimentation with issues of light and angle, but is testament to the author's ingenuity, insight, and imagination. The few readers fortunate enough to own this beautifully designed little book, having seen the little illusion once, will doubtless never forget the moment.

The Science Behind the Ghost: A Brief History of Pepper's Ghost • Jim Steinmeyer • 8.5" x 8.5" spiral bound • 100 pages • 37 illustrations • 1999 • Hahne