Having been studying and writing about magic history for over 30 years now, it has been remarkable to witness the changes that technology has brought to the task of research.
As a teenager, in about 1975 B.C. (Before Computers) I would spend hours in the downtown Seattle Public Library pouring over old copies of the New York Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, looking for ads and stories about the great magicians of the past. In those days, the Periodical Desk at the library would hand you huge bound volumes containing real, honest-to-goodness copies of the newspapers. I remember well the musty smell of ancient newsprint. I also remember reading the stories about the death of Houdini, looking at the same newspaper that someone else had, a half century before me. A few years later, when the library converted their files to microfilm, all of these wonderful bound volumes of newspapers vanished. Visits to the library were never quite the same again for me. I missed the smell of history.
Most serious magic historians own complete files of Sphinx, Genii and other periodicals, as well as libraries filled with the most popular books on the subject from the past 130 years (if one uses Hoffmann’s Modern Magic as the starting point for popular magic literature.) While that great smell of history is there, the real key in research is in finding the material when you need it.
Jack Potter made the Herculean effort to index and cross reference every popular trick and effect published roughly from 1876 through the early 1960’s, sharing his results serially as Potter’s Bar in the Linking Ring, and later as a series of volumes from Micky Hades. Potter’s index was an amazing feat in itself during those pre-computer days. However, Potter was interested only in documenting references to tricks and methods, not news and personalities from the magic world. This was in keeping with the times, when most magicians were primarily interested in the techniques and not the people who made the magic.
The magic historian was left with the task of sorting through thousands of pages in books and magazines, literally one line at a time. Hour upon hour could be spent searching for one reference. At times it was akin to looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
With the advent of the computer age, and the OCR software necessary to scan printed pages and convert them to pixels, a whole new world has opened for the magic researcher. Bill Kalush and Conjuring Arts have certainly led the way in our field.
No longer is it necessary to sit cloistered in a library. Now, with a laptop computer and an internet connection, one can relax at their local Starbucks with a cup of coffee and watch as the history of magic unfolds before them.
My latest project is writing the definitive biography of Harry Willard, and the saga of those who performed as “Willard The Wizard.” While I have accumulated many great stories about Willard, due to the nature of his traveling life many of the dates and places of those events have fallen through the cracks. So recently, I called upon the Ask Alexander database for help. Within seconds of typing “Willard The Wizard” on my keyboard, the search engine found 152 references to Willard among 62 documents in the Conjuring Arts collection.
Besides the usual magic publications, it was interesting to find references from non-hobby sources, such as The Billboard magazine. For example, in his January 17, 1948 Magic column, Bill Sachs wrote: “Caught Willard the Wizard in Carmine, Texas. He carries seven people and 16 illusions and gives a two-hour show. Well timed and perfect.” Sachs was a seasoned theatrical reporter, who had seen all of the greats of the era, which makes this short notice especially interesting. Two weeks later, in the January 31st column, Virgil wrote to Sachs: “One who has never caught Willard’s performance can’t conceive of the magnitude of the show. Willard has most all of the big illusions that have been done by other magicians plus a few of his own creation. The numerous trucks and trailers he uses give his show the appearance of a circus.” These notices are just two examples of the type of material that one could have previously spent days searching for, but is now available in just seconds via AskAlexander.org.
So what does this technology hold for the magic historians of the future? Much like television was in 1948, we are just beginning to unravel the potential of internet-based research tools. No doubt new research could be done on just about any figure in the history of magic and today you’d find more information than even one year ago, thanks to the databases now available. For the first time to the magic historian, the future is starting to look as interesting as the past. Now if they could just bring back that great musty smell….