The Secret Book of Practical Illusions

Posted: September 13, 2014 in books, collecting, magic
Tags: , ,

Robert Harbin and the Zig ZagRegardless of what some intellectuals of the field may say, for the Art of Magic to touch the human spirit it has to rely on the sense of mystery, otherwise it can’t be “magic.” You see, if you can figure out the method by which a magical effect is created, then you haven’t seen magic. When you watch a juggler, you can see exactly how he has to coordinate the throws of his balls to give a pleasant display of objects floating in the air. You may not be able to duplicate his display, but still you realize that long hours of practice are what allow him to do his tricks.

Similarly, if you see a magician showing a box empty by quickly opening the front door over a black interior, to then close it again and produce from it a white, fluffy bunny, you may be surprised, charmed and entertained, even if there is probably no great sense of mystery in you, no feeling of having witnessed magic. But what if this box, held upside down by a magician in the middle of a cabaret floor, away from any background, scenery, tables, were to produce not only a fluffy bunny, but many scarves, a large solid die, as big as the box itself, and a number of glass fish bowls, in a pile almost as tall as the magician himself? I can assure you: this would be a sight hard to believe, and a mystery so unfathomable that would leave a perfect sense of magic.

But, how on earth could something like that be achieved? There is simply no way!

Ned Williams - a young Rober Harbin

Ned Williams – a young Robert Harbin

But a way there is, thanks to the genius of one of the most brilliant, if not the most brilliant magic inventor of the 20th century: Robert Harbin. Born in South Africa in 1909, Ned Williams – his real name – arrived in London at the age of 20 and started a successful magic career, at a time when variety theatres were still attracting large audiences. In addition to being a great performer, Harbin had something more: he was a genius in devising new tricks and, especially, new magical principles which, in almost every case, were both original and practical.

I have talked in a previous post about the craze of the woman sawn in half illusion, the great idea from the early 1920s which redefined the image of the conjurer. Robert Harbin was the man who, in the 1960s, gave this illusion the greatest improvement in forty years: he devised a method not only to cut a lady in three parts, but also to slide the central part of her body out: he called it “The Zig Zag Girl.”

Harbin built  the illusion (the original apparatus now resides in the Museum of The Magic Circle, in London) and first performed it in London in October 1965, during The Magic Circle’s Banquet. The illusion was so original that was quickly plagiarized by a few unethical magicians. The matter greatly grieved Harbin who, at the end of a long battle against one Jim Sommers, an American magician who had copied the illusion and performed it at magic conventions, sat down to write one of the most amazing books of secrets ever written.

Magic of Robert Harbin The most secret book of secrets.

Magic of Robert Harbin
The most secret book of secrets.

Magic of Robert Harbin was published in June 1970 in a limited edition of 500 copies and sold for £27.10 (about £350 – $580 of today’s money), an unheard-of amount of money for a magic book. The book is A4 size, hardback with a green cover and gold lettering and every copy was signed by  Harbin. For the sale of the book, Harbin used some of the stratagems used by Will Goldston for his “Locked Books,” save the lock itself: the book was expensive, the subscriber had to sign an agreement whereby he would not divulge the secrets contained, not sell it or lend it for two years, not build any of the contained tricks for resale, and more.

Advertising brochure for Robert Harbin

Advertising brochure for Robert Harbin

A theatrical “coup” by Harbin followed the publication of the book: the destruction of the printing plates, containing the text and illustrations, a (vain) effort to keep the book exclusive for its owners. This happened in August 1970, when Harbin and The Magic Circle’s Honorary Secretary, John Salisse, together with The Circle’s Chairman of the Council, John Young, smashed the 193 metal plates with “an enormous hammer”1. This would have prevented a reprint of the book, both for the author and the publisher, in an era where nobody could even imagine the miracles of digital printing.

The book quickly rose to the ranks of one of the most exclusive collections of secrets: first of all, most of the material was modern and suitable to the working conditions of the magicians of the era, often performing on cabaret floors, surrounded by the audience, without the help of a theatre with its traps, curtains, wings, etc. Then, the book contained the only correct explanation of “The Zig Zag Girl,” Harbin’s masterpiece, with all the details that made the illusion deceptive. Indeed, some of these details are still unknown today, as many of the copies (unauthorized) of the apparatus one sees for sale by magic shops are missing some of Harbin’s secrets, what made the illusion so deceptive.

Other effects in the book haven’t really kept up with times, sadly: Harbin’s Cigarette Routine has been relegated to history thanks to the strong opposition to smoking that has come out in the past few years; the “Vanishing Vase and Flowers” is an amazing principle but it uses objects that were organic in Harbin’s time and that are no longer so; likewise the “Vanishing Radio,” using some apparatus that is now known only to collectors of vintage radios. At the side, you can see Harbin perform the vanishing radio back in 1939, the time of its invention. The apparatus was then modern, but today it would not be so deceptive.

The book concluded with some illusions that could be shown as “sideshow attractions” at funfairs. Sadly, these interesting (mostly optical) illusions have now almost completely disappeared, replaced by mechanical rides, and their presence in the book is today purely academic. Tastes change! All the illusions in the book require a skilled builder to make them, and this, along with the fact that magic has moved more towards close-up and mentalism, has contributed to keep these secrets closed between these two green covers.

Page 154 of the original book, with attached correction.

Page 154 of the original book, with attached correction.

The scarcity of the book and the quality of the secrets it contains brought it to the top of the “want list” of many magicians, both collectors and not. In the 1980s, after Harbin’s death, some pirate copies started to appear on the market: these were very good books, very similar to the original one, in size, weight and feel, and sold well especially in the USA. The book – it was discovered later – was published by Al Mann (Gilbert S. Aleman, 1924-1999) through the printing firm of Craige Snader, Jr. (1929-1994) in Mexico, from a copy of the original. Its quality is such that it is quite difficult to identify a copy from an original. The differences are in the colour of the cover, a lighter green than Harbin’s; in the presence of a ribbon marker and, most obvious, in a printed text on page 154 (see photo – note: almost all images can be clicked to see a higher quality version). Peter Warlock (Alec William Bell, 1904-1995), the book’s editor, felt that the description of the illusion The Invisible Man or Out of this World was unclear and an extra paragraph was added, by glueing a piece of paper on the page. Other pages have this kind of explanatory text printed on the margin, but for some reason, this correction was missed from the printing plate and had to be manually glued later. Al Mann’s copy, instead, has the text printed directly on the page.

harbin_page_illusionThe book is still highly sought after by collectors and it sells for about $1,000-$1,500 when it comes on the market. Oddly, the fake edition seem to sell for more! What is the value of secrets? Of a whole book of secrets? In practical, a performer’s terms, this book is probably not worth that much: unless one has a requirement for a show of large illusions, the material in this book is of no use. For a collector, instead, the book must be part of his/her collection! Being a limited edition of only 500 copies, of which only a few come to the market and only once in a while, the book becomes a target that can’t be missed.

In the introduction of this book, his legacy, Robert Harbin said:

This book will, I hope, find its way to some bookcases, and in time remind the young ones of a magician, who loved magic all his life.

Robert Harbin

And thanks to it, we, the “young ones” of today, remember Robert Harbin and will never forget his ingenuity and his love for Magic. This book was his most cherished production, the final legacy of a life in Magic. Indeed, Harbin was even keeping a “master list” of all the buyers of the book, as he knew who the original owner of every individual – numbered – copy, was. Only these people were entitled to build a copy of his illusions, especially of the Zig Zag Girl. When he died in 1978, only eight years after the publication of his book, this master list was at his bedside, then it was lost2. My copy of the book is n. 275 and I’m the second owner of this particular copy: I plan to remain so for a long time.

Do you need to have a copy of this book in your library? At any price? As per every other magical memorabilia – the “small ephemeral magic” this blog is about – I don’t think there is any hard and fast rule. Maybe, by having the book in your collection, you will fulfil Robert Harbin’s wish to be remembered. But if you simply want to remember this great inventor, thanks to modern technology, from the comfort of your chair and without spending thousands of dollars, you can now see how his masterpiece was supposed to be presented, by the master himself:


  1. The Magic Circular, Vol. 64, n. 715, p. 212, Sep. 1970
  2. Personal communication
All content is Copyright © 2010-2014 by Marco Pusterla - All rights reserved.
  1. Erix Logan says:

    Fantastic dissertation (as usual) !
    Many Thanks


  2. geoff booth says:

    I remember well the occasion of seeing Harbin’s stage act at the Ardwick Green variety theatre in Manchester ( England ) in the 1950’s which included his lighted cigarette routine & his production ( centre stage ) of four graduated glass fish bowls , complete with goldfish in each one – a truly memorable magician
    Also on other occasions I saw Al Koran , the amazing mentalist & the full evening show of the great German magician Kalanag – happy days

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Martin W says:

    A few years ago someone found 8 copies at a San Antonio’s Salvation Army … they had been placed in the religious book section and went unnoticed … paid $1 each and eventually sold them on ebay for over $6000

    If this link works go to post 12 for the story


    • MPMagic says:

      Many thanks, Martin, for this great story! The link you provide requires registration/login to the site. This just come to prove that one can find magic (memorabilia) in the most unexpected places!


  4. Mark says:

    I am also the 2nd owner of a copy. No. 217.
    Still deliberating how to pass this on someday to a future generation.


    • MPMagic says:

      Hi Mark: probably the best way would be to offer the book to a specialistic auction house. This service will come with a price, though, so you may first explore the possibility of a private sale (please email me if interested, as I may facilitate this option), or to donate it to a young magician who is interested in creativity in magic and on stage magic/illusions.


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