of my age ; Comte acted in accordance with his ; we both
succeeded, though differing in our treatment, and this only
proves that " all styles are good except that which is
These performances of Comte's, however, inflamed my
imagination ; I only dreamed of theatres, conjuring, me-
chanism, automata, &c. ; I was impatient to take my place
among the adepts of magic, and make myself a name in
the marvellous art. The time I required in forming a
determination seemed to me so much stolen from my future
success. My success ! I did not know what trials I
should undergo ere I merited it. I had no suspicion of
the toil, the care, and trouble which I should have to pay
Still, I resolved on continuing my studies of automata
and instruments suited to produce magical illusions.
Though I had seen many of them while with Torrini, I
had many more to learn, for the stock of conjuring tricks
in those days was enormous. Fortunately I found an
opportunity of materially abridging my studies.
I had noticed, while passing along the Rue Richelieu,
a modest little shop, in front of which conjuring apparatus
was exposed for sale. This was a piece of good luck, so
I bought some of the things, and while paying repeated
visits to the master of the shop, under pretext of asking
information, I got into his good graces, and he grew to
look on me as a friend.
Father Roujol (such was his name) was perfectly ac-
quainted with his trade, and he held the confidence of
FATHER ROUJOL. 153
every conjurer of note ; hence, he could give me much
valuable information, so I became more polite than ever,
and the worthy man soon initiated me into all his mys-
teries. But my repeated visits to the shop had another
object as well, for I wished to meet some of the masters
of the art who could increase my knowledge.
Unfortunately, my old friend's shop was not so visited
as before. The revolution of 1830 had turned persons'
ideas to more serious matters than "physical amuse-
ments," and the greater number of conjurers had wan-
dered into strange countries. Old Roujol's good times
had, therefore, passed away, which rendered him very
"Things are not as they used to be," he would say,
" and it might really be fancied the jugglers had juggled
themselves away, for I don't see a single one. Will the
time ever return," he added, "when the Due de M
did not disdain to visit my humble shop, and remain here
for hours talking to me and my numerous visitors. Ah,
that was a time ! when all the first conjurers and ama-
teurs formed a brilliant club here ; for each of these
masters, desirous of proving his superiority over the
others, showed his best tricks and his utmost skill."
I felt the old gentleman's regret equally with himself, for
I should have revelled in such society, as I would have walk-
ed any time twenty leagues for the sake of talking with a
professor. Still, I had the luck to form here the acquain-
tance of Jules de Rove're, the first to employ a title now
generally given to fashionable conjurers. Being of noble
birth, he desired a title in accordance with it ; but, as he
had rejected with disdain the vulgar name of eseamoteur,
and as, too, that of pliysicien was frequently used by hia
rivals, he was compelled to create a title for himself.
154 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-IIOUDIN.
One day the pompous title of " PRESTIDIGITATEUR "
was visible on an enormous poster, which also conde-
scended to supply the derivation of this breath-stopping
word, presto digiti (activity of the fingers). Then came
the details of the performance, intermingled with Latin
quotations, which must attract the attention of the public
by evidencing the learning of the conjurer I beg pardon,
This word, as well as prestidigitation, due to the same
author, were soon seized upon by Jules de Rov^re's rivals,
who liked a good mouthful too. The Academy itself fol-
lowed this example by sanctioning the formation of the
word, and thus handing it down to posterity. I am bound
to add, though, that this word, originally so pompous, is
no longer a distinction, for, as the most humble jugglers
were at liberty to appreciate it, it follows that conjuring
and prestidigitation have become synonymous. The con-
jurer who requires a title should seek it in his own merit,
and recognise the sound truth that " it is better for a man
to honor his profession than to be honored by it." For my
own part, I never made any distinction between the two
names, and I shall employ them indiscriminately, until
some new Jules de Rov^re arrive to enrich the Dictionary
of the French Academy.
CELEBRATED AUTOMATA. 155
Celebrated Automata A Brazen Fly The Artificial Man Albertus
Magnus and St. Thomas d'Aquinas Vaucanson His Duck His
Flute-Player Curious Details The Automaton Chess-Player In-
teresting Episode Catherine II. and M. de Kempelen I repair the
Componium Unexpected Success.
OWING to my persevering researches I had nothing left
to learn in conjuring; but, in order to carry out my
scheme, I had to study the principles of a science on
which I greatly depended for the success of my future
performances. I allude to the science, or rather art, of
While occupied with this idea I made active investiga-
tions ; I applied to the public libraries and their keepers,
whom my tenacious importunity drove into despair. But
all the information I collected only brought me descrip-
tions of mechanical toys, far less ingenious than certain
playthings of the present day, or absurd statements of
chefs-d'oeuvre published in the dark ages. My readers
may judge from the following :
I found, in a, work bearing the title " Apologie pour les
Grands Homines Accuses de Magie," that "Jean de Mont-
royal presented to the Emperor Charles V. an iron fly,
which made a solemn circuit round its inventor's head, and
then reposed from its fatigue on his arm." Such a fly is
rather extraordinary, yet I have something better to tell
my readers still about a fly.
15G MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.
Gervais, Chancellor to the Emperor Otho III., in hia
book entitled " Otia Imperatoris," informs us that "the
sage Virgilius, Bishop of Naples, made a brass fly, which
he placed on one of the city gates, and that this mechani-
cal fly, trained like a shepherd's dog, prevented any other
fly entering Naples ; so much so, that during eight years
the meat exposed for sale in the market was never once
How much should we regret that this marvellous auto-
maton has not survived to our day ? How the butchers,
and still more their customers, would thank the learned
bishop ! Pass we to another marvel :
Francis Picus relates that "Roger Bacon, aided by
Thomas Bungey, his brother in religion, after having ren-
dered their bodies equal and tempered by chemistry, em-
ployed the Speculum Amuchesi to construct a brazen head
which should tell them if there were any mode of enclosing
the whole of England by a high wall. They forged at it
for seven years without relaxation, but misfortune willed
it that when the head spoke the two monks did not hear
it, as they were engaged on something else."
I have asked myself a hundred times how the two intre-
pid blacksmiths knew the head had spoken, when they
were not present to hear it. I never discovered any other
solution than this : it was, doubtlessly, because their bodies
were equalized and tempered by chemistry.
But here is a far more astounding marvel.
Tostat, in his " Commentaires sur 1'Enode," states that
" Albertus Magnus* Provincial of the Dominicans, at Co-
logne, constructed a brass man, which he worked at con-
tinually for thirty years. This work was performed under
various constellations and according to the laws of perspec-
When the sun was in the sign of the Zodiac the eyes of
this automaton melted metals, on which the characters of
the same sign were traced. This intelligent machine was
equally gifted with motion and speech, and it revealed to
Albertus Magnus some of his most important secrets.
Unfortunately, St. Thomas Aquinas, Albertus's pupil,
taking this statue for the handiwork of the devil, smashed
it with a big stick.
As a finale to these fables, which are well fitted to figure
among the marvels performed by Perrault's fairies, I will
quote from page 252 of the "Journal des Savants" for
1677 : " The artificial man of Reysolius, a statue so re-
sembling the human form, that, with the exception of the
operations of the soul, everything that takes place in the
body may be witnessed."
What a pity the mechanician stopped so soon ! for it
would have cost him so little, while making so exquisite a
resemblance to the fairest work of the Creator, to add to
his automaton a soul moving by clockwork !
This quotation does much honor to the savants who ac-
cepted the responsibility of such a statement, and is a fur-
ther proof how history is written.
It may be easily supposed these works furnished me no
guide to the art I so much wished to study ; and although
I continued my inquiries, I only attained the unsatisfac-
tory result that nothing serious had been written on the
subject of automata.
"What!" I said to myself, "can it be possible that the
marvellous science which raised Vaucanson's name so high
the science whose ingenious combinations can animate
inert matter, and impart to it a species of existence is
the only one without its archives?"
When about to give up the subject in despair, I stumbled
158 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.
on a memoir of the inventor of the "Automaton Duck."
This memoir, bearing date 1738, is addressed by the au-
thor to the members of the Academy of Sciences. In it
will he found a learned description of his flute-player, as
well as a report of the Academy, which I here transcribe.
Extract from the Registers of the Royal Academy of
Sciences for April 30, 1738 :
" The Academy, after hearing M. de Vaucanson's me-
moir read, containing a description of a wooden statue,
copied from Coysvoix's marble fawn, which plays twelve
different airs on a German flute with a precision deserving
of public attention, was of opinion that this machine was
extremely ingenious ; that the inventor had employed
novel and simple means both to give the fingers the neces-
sary motion and to modify the wind entering the flute, by
augmenting or diminishing its velocity, according to the
various tones ; by varying the arrangement of the lips,
and setting a valve in motion to perform the functions of
the tongue ; lastly, by artificially imitating all that a man
is obliged to do ; and that, in addition, M. de Vaucanson's
memoir possessed all the clearness and perception such
matter is capable of, proving the intelligence of the author,
and his great knowledge of the different branches of me-
chanism. In confirmation of which I have signed the pre-
sent certificate. FONTENELLE,
" Perpetual Secretary, Royal Academy of Sciences.
"Paris, May 3, 1738."
After this report comes a letter of Vaucanson's, ad-
dressed to the Abbe' D. F., in which he informs him of his
intention of presenting to the public on Easter Monday
I THE AUTOMATON DUCK. 159
1. A player of the German flute.
2. A player of the tambourine.
3. An artificial duck.
"In this duck," the celebrated automatist writes, "will
be noticed the mechanism of the viscera, intended to per-
form the functions of eating, drinking and digesting. The
action of all the parts is exactly imitated. The bird puts
out its head to take up the seed, swallows it, digests it,
and evacuates it by the ordinary channels.
"All thoughtful persons will understand the difficulty
of making my automaton perform so many different move-
ments, as when it stands on its legs and moves its head to
the right and left. They will also see that this animal
drinks, dabbles with its bill, quacks like the living duck,
and, in short, is precisely similar in every respect."
I was the more surprised at the contents of the memoir,
as it was the first trustworthy information I had gained
about automata. The description of the flute player gave
me a high opinion of the inventor's talent ; but I much
regretted finding so short an account of the mechanical
combinations of the duck.
For a time, I contented myself with admiring and be-
lieving in the great master's work, but, in 1844, Vaucan-
son's duck was exhibited in a room at the Palais Royal.*
Of course I was one of the first to visit it, and was much
struck by its skillful and learned formation. Some time
after, one of the wings having been injured, the duck was
sent to me to repair, and I was initiated into the famous
mystery of digestion. To my great surprise, I found that
* After Vaucanson's death, his works were dispersed and lost, with
the exception of the duck, which, after remaining for a long time in a
garret at Berlin, saw light again in 1840, and was purchased by a M.
George Tiets, who spent four years in repairing it.
1GO MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.
the illustrious master had not disdained to have recourse
to a trick which a conjurer would have been proud of.
The digestion, so pompously announced in the memoir,
was only a mystification a real canard, in fact. De-
cidedly, Vaucanson was not only my master in mechanism,
but I must bow before his genius for juggling.
The trick was as simple as it was interesting. A vase,
containing seed steeped in water, was placed before the
bird. The motion of the bill in dabbling crushed the food,
and facilitated its introduction into a pipe placed beneath
the lower bill. The water and seed thus swallowed fell
into a box placed under the bird's stomach, which was
emptied every three or four days. The other part of the
operation was thus effected : Bread-crumb, colored green,
was expelled by a forcing pump, and carefully caught on
a silver salver as the result of artificial digestion. This
was handed round to be admired, while the ingenious
trickster laughed in his sleeve at the credulity of the
public. But, before leaving this subject, I must give a
short biographical notice of this illustrious man.
Jacques de Vaucanson was born at Grenoble on the
24th February, 1709, of a noble family, and his taste for
mechanism was developed at an early age. In 1730, the
flute-player at the Tuilleries suggested to him the idea of
constructing on this model an automaton which should
really play the flute, and he spent four years in perfecting
it. The story runs that Vaucanson's valet was the only
person acquainted with his secret, and at the first notes
produced by the flute-player, the faithful servant fell at
his master's feet, as if he were more than mortal, and they
embraced with tears of joy.
The duck and tambourine-player soon followed, and
were chiefly intended to speculate on public curiosity.
THE ENDLESS CHAIN. 161
Though noble by birth, Vaucanson exhibited his automata
at the fair of Saint Germain and at Paris, where his re-
ceipts were enormous. He is also said to have invented a
loom on which a donkey worked cloth ; this he made in
revenge upon the silk-weavers of Lyons, who had stoned
him because he attempted to simplify the ordinary loom.
We also owe to Vaucanson a chain that still bears his
name, and a machine to make meshes of equal size.
It is also said he invented for the performance of Mar-
montel's Cleopatra, an asp which fastened itself with a
hiss on the bosom of the actress who played the principal
character. On the first performance of the tragedy, a
jester, more struck by the hissing of the automaton than
by the beauty of the tragedy, exclaimed, " I am of the
asp's opinion !"
This illustrious mechanician retained all his activity to
the last moment of his life. While dangerously ill, he
devoted himself to his machine for making his endless
"Do not lose a minute," he said to his workmen; "I
fear I may not live long enough to explain my idea thor-
Eight days later, on the 21st of November, 1782, he
died, at the age of seventy-three ; but, before leaving this
world, he had the consolation of seeing his machine at
One piece of good luck never arrives without another ;
thus, in 1844, 1 also saw at the house of a mechanician of
the name of Cronier, at Belleville, the famous chess-player,
who defeated the whole chess world. I never saw it at
work, but since then I have received some information
about the automaton of a certain degree of interest, and I
trust my readers will feel the same surprise as I did when
I heard it. L
162 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.
My story commences in Russia : the first division of
Poland in 1792 had produced a certain fermentation, the
effects of which were felt some years later. In 1796, a
revolt broke out in a half-Russian, half-Polish regiment
stationed at Riga, at the head of the rebels being an offiper
of the name of Worousky, a man of great talent and
energy. He was of short stature, but well built ; and he
exercised such influence, that the troops sent to suppress
the revolt were beaten back with considerable loss. How-
ever, reinforcements came from St. Petersburg, and the
insurgents were defeated in a pitched battle. A great
number perished, and the rest took to flight across the
marshes, where the soldiers pursued them, with orders to
grant no -quarter.
In this rout "Worousky had both thighs shattered by a
cannon-ball, and fell on the battle-field; however, he
escaped from the general massacre by throwing himself
into a ditch behind a hedge. At nightfall, Worousky
dragged himself along with great difficulty to the adjacent
house of a physician of the name of Osloff, whose benevo-
lence was well known, and the doctor, moved by his suf-
ferings, attended upon, and promised to conceal him. His
wound was serious, but the doctor felt confident of curing
him, until gangrene set in, and his life could only be saved
at the cost of half his body. The amputation was suc-
cessful, and Worousky saved.
During this time, M. de Kempelen, a celebrated Viennese
mechanician, came to Russia to pay a visit to M. Osloff,
with whom he had been long acquainted. He was travel-
ling about to learn foreign languages, the study of which
he afterwards displayed in his splendid work on the
"Mechanism of Words," published at Vienna in 1791.
M. de Kempelen stopped a short time in every country the
THE CHESS-PLAYER. 163
language of which he desired to learn, and his aptitude
was so great- that he acquired it very speedily.
This visit was the more agreeable to the doctor, as for
some time he had been alarmed as to the consequences of
the noble action he had performed ; he feared being com-
promised if it were found out, and his embarrassment was
extreme, for, living alone with an old housekeeper, he had
no one to consult or help him. Hence, he told M. de
Keuipelen his secret, and begged his aid. Though at first
startled by sharing such a secret for he knew that a
reward was offered for the insurgent chief, and that the
act of humanity he was about to help in might send him
to Siberia still, M. de Kempelen, on seeing Worousky's
mutilated body, felt moved with compassion, and began
contriving some plan to secure his escape.
Dr. Osloff was a passionate lover of chess, and had
played numerous games with his patient during his tardy
convalesence ; but Worousky was so strong at the game
that the doctor was always defeated. Then Kempelen
joined the doctor in trying to defeat the skillful player,
but it was of no use ; Worousky was always the conqueror.
His superiority gave M. de Kempelen the idea of the fa-
mous Automaton Chess-player. In an instant his plan
was formed, and he sat to work immediately. The most
remarkable circumstance is, that this wonderful chef-
d'osuvre, which astonished the whole world, was invented
and finished with three months.
M. de Kempelen was anxious his host should make the
first essay of his automaton ; so, he invited him to play a
game on the 10th of October, 1796. The automaton rep-
resented a Turk of the natural size, wearing the national
costume, and seated behind a box of the shape of a chest
of drawers. In the middle of the top of the box was a
164 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.
Prior to commencing the game, the artist opened seve-
ral doors in the chest, and M. Osloff could see inside a
large number of wheels, pulleys, cylinders, springs, &c.,
occupying the larger part. At the same time, he opened
a long drawer, from which he produced the chessmen and
a cushion, on which the Turk was to rest his arm. This
examination ended, the robe of the automaton was raised,
and the interior of the body could also be inspected.
The doors being then closed, M. de Kempelen wound up
one of the wheels with a key he inserted in a hole in the
chest ; after which the Turk, with a gentle nod of saluta-
tion, placed his hand on one of the pieces, raised it, de-
posited it on another square, and laid his arm on the
cushion before him. The inventor had stated that, as the
automaton could not speak, it would signify check to the
king by three nods, and to the queen by two.
The doctor moved in his turn, and waited patiently till
his adversary, whose movements had all the dignity of the
Sultan he represented, had moved. The game, though
slow at first, soon grew animated, and the doctor found he
had to deal with a tremendous opponent ; for, in spite of
all his efforts to defeat the figure, his game was growing
quite desperate. It is true, though, that for some minutes
past, the doctor's attention had appeared to be distracted,
and one idea seemed to occupy him. But while hesitating
whether he should impart his thoughts to his friend, the
figure gave three nods. The game was over.
"By Jove!" the loser said, with a tinge of vexation,
which the sight of the inventor's smiling face soon dis-
pelled, " if I were not certain Worousky is at this mo-
ment in bed, I should believe I had been playing with
him. His head alone is capable of inventing such a
checkmate. And besides," said the doctor, looking fixed-
AN INGENIOUS SCHEME. 165
ly at M. de Kempelen, " can you tell me why your auto-
maton plays with the left hand, just like Worousky ?"*
The mechanician began laughing, and not wishing to
prolong this mystification, the prelude to so many others,
he confessed to his friend that he had really been playing
"But where the deuce have you put him, then?" the
doctor said, looking round to try and discover his oppo-
The inventor laughed heartily.
" Well ! do you not recognize me ?" the Turk exclaimed,
holding out his left hand to the doctor in reconciliation,
while Kempelen raised the robe, and displayed the poor
cripple stowed away in the body of the automaton.
M. Osloff could no longer keep his countenance, and he
joined the othqrs in their laughter. But he was the first
to stop, for he wanted an explanation.
" But how do you manage to render Worousky invisi-
M. de Kempelen then explained IIOAV he concealed the
living automaton before it entered the Turk's body.
" See here !" he said, opening the chest, " these wheels,
pulleys and cranks occupying a portion of the chest, are
only a deception. The frames that support them are
hung on hinges, and can be turned back to leave space
for the player while you were examining the body of the
" When this inspection was ended, and as soon as the
robe was allowed to fall, Worousky entered the Turk's
body we have just examined, and, while I was showing
you the box and the machinery, he was taking his time to
* The automaton chess-player always used the left hand a defect
falsely attributed to the carelessness of the constructor.
166 MEMOIRS OF ROBERT-HOUDIN.
pass his arms and hands into those of the figure. You
can understand that, owing to the size of the neck, which
is hidden by the broad and enormous collar, he can easily
pass his head into this mask, and see the chess-board, I
must add, that when I pretend to wind up the machine, it
is only to drown the sound of Worousky's movements."
"Very good, then," the doctor replied, to show he per-
fectly understood the plan ; " while I was examining the
chest, my confounded Worousky was in the Turk's body,
and when the robe was lifted, he had passed into the chest.
I frankly allow," M. Osloff added, " that I was done by
this ingenious arrangement; but I console myself with
the idea that cleverer persons than I will be deceived."
The three friends were the more delighted by the result
of this private rehearsal, as this instrument furnished an