Today, creative genius satisfies our need to be
amazed. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Ricky Jay's book,
Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women,
gives a marvelous account of the inventors of
yesterday's trickery. In it he explores the great
stage tricks of past centuries.
Well, not just tricks -- much of it is better than
trickery. In 1900, for example, a magician waved
his wand over a 2½-foot ball, and it rolled
uphill on a ramp. No magnets, no electricity.
In the ball, it seems, rode a contortionist who
kept its weight off-center. The skill needed to do
that was enough to make the exposed trick more
remarkable than the secret trick.
A lot of the old stage trickery was like that. One
man gained such control over his joints and muscles
that he could make himself shrink or grow six
inches in seconds. Now that was a frightening thing
Down through history a whole class of tricks has
used assaults on the human body that I'd as soon
not have to watch. A human fountain drank 40
glasses of water, then spouted it into a container
20 feet away. Sword swallowers, stone eaters, fire
walkers. Several people did tricks with their own
Many of the great 19th-century stage wonders were
handicapped people who'd simply overcome their
handicaps -- an armless violinist who played with
his feet. Sarah Biffin, born without arms or feet,
became a fine artist. She held the brush in her
teeth, and I tell you, her work was good. Blind
Tom, born as a sightless slave, went on to become a
great stage hall musician.
I like the educated pigs best. Pigs are very smart
animals. In 1783, a trained pig turned up in London
doing acrobatics and arithmetic -- singing and
playing cards. Never mind which acts were real and
which were fake -- this was a very bright beast.
Blake, Coleridge, Wollstonecraft, and Samuel
Johnson all visited him. When Johnson died soon
after, a poem turned up,
Though Johnson, learned BEAR is gone,
Let us no longer mourn our loss;
For lo, a learned Hog is come,
And Wisdom grunts at Charing Cross.
For a while, pigs were the
rage. But young pigs soon grew too big for the
stage. One showman brought in a set of new young
pigs and let the old pigs help train them. When the
huge old pigs, off in their sty, heard their
musical cue, they burst loose, ran to the stage,
and pushed the young newcomers aside.
And so, for a season, creativity satisfied our need
for wonders by directly outrunning what we thought
were human and animal limits. Finally new
technologies -- first movies, then TV -- simply
overshadowed the old stage trickery. They raised
our expectations far beyond anything we'd ever seen
on the stage. And an era of wonders ended at last.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds