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What’s the Oldest Trick in the Book?

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Magicians have been practicing their craft for ages, but what’s the first magic trick that was recorded for posterity?

According to some historians, the oldest trick in the book is more like the oldest trick on the wall. A painting on the interior walls of an Egyptian burial chamber, created as early as 2500 BCE, appears to show two men performing what’s known as “the cups and balls” and may be the earliest record of a magic performance. 

The cups and balls usually involves making three balls pass through the sides and bottoms of three cups and having them jump from cup to cup, disappear and reappear. The routine involves some of magic’s most fundamental effects and skills—like vanishes and transpositions, and misdirection and dexterity—and mastering it is often considered a good education in magic or a rite of passage for a performer. 

It is indeed a very old trick, says magic historian Bill Palmer, but he doesn’t think that’s what the tomb paintings depict. 

For one thing, Palmer says, the image shows cups, but no balls. It also depicts a pair of people handling the cups, but the trick has almost always been done by a solo performer, even in its very early history. Cups and balls doesn’t make sense in the context of the other nearby drawings from the tomb, either. The rest of the images in the series show people preparing food—a butcher with his knife, animals being led to slaughter, etc. The men in the painting, the evidence suggests to Palmer, aren’t magicians and they’re not handling cups; they’re bakers making bread for a feast. 

The next recorded reference to the cups and balls comes from the writings of a Roman author around 45 CE, which still probably makes it the oldest sleight of hand trick. The lota bowl trick—which involves a vessel that can seemingly refill itself after being emptied—is the oldest known prop trick, and dates to around 3000 BCE, according to magician/historian Bill Spooner.

(The GEICO folks have another theory.)

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
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CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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