7 Epic Magician Rivalries

In the 2006 film The Prestige, Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale portray magicians in 19th-century London who go to great lengths to outdo one another on stage. While that was a fictional tale, it was undoubtedly inspired in part by the very real rivalries that have existed in the conjuring arts for centuries. Take a look at seven feuds where one party hoped the other could be made to just disappear.


In August 1900, legendary escape artist Harry Houdini began a two-week run at London’s famed Alhambra Theatre. Just minutes into his first show, a magician known as Cirnoc bellowed from the audience that he, not Houdini, was the “original” king of handcuff escapes. Fearing he might lose his audience to the publicity-seeking Cirnoc, Houdini made a quick escape from a notoriously difficult pair of handcuffs that didn’t allow the wearer to reach the keyhole. He then challenged Cirnoc to do the same, offering him $500 if he succeeded.

The upstart failed, and he was sheepishly forced to acknowledge Houdini’s superiority before leaving the stage. Cirnoc, whose real name was Paul Conrich, died just three years later.


While magic tricks themselves aren’t subject to copyright—one could, for example, make a train disappear without having to pay David Copperfield royalties—the presentation, or pantomime portion of the performance, can be. That was the argument offered by Raymond Teller, the otherwise silent partner of Penn Jillette, when a Belgian magician named Gerard Dogge promised to reveal how one of Teller’s trademark illusions was done. In the piece, which Teller titled Shadows, he clips the leaves and petals of a rose seen in shadow on a screen; the real rose casting the shadow has the exact same pieces fall to the ground.

When Dogge posted a YouTube video insisting he knew how to do the trick and would reveal it to anyone with $3050 to spare, Teller began a years-long pursuit of copyright infringement. He hired private detectives to find Dogge so he could be served with court papers; when that failed, he emailed them to Dogge and convinced a judge that Dogge had seen them. In 2014, the judge ordered a permanent injunction against Dogge and fined him $545,000.


In 1921, P. T. Selbit made magic history by introducing his Sawing Through a Woman illusion. In it, Selbit appeared to pass sheets of glass and eventually a hand saw through the torso of his boxed-in assistant, shocking audiences before revealing no actual harm had come to her. The trick was so potent that another magician, Horace Goldin, decided to build on it by placing his assistant in a box, leaving her head and feet exposed, and then separating the two halves. The two magicians began an onstage rivalry, upping the drama quotient—Selbit had blood running from the stage, while Goldin had ambulances on standby in case the trick failed—and tried their best to sabotage one another’s booked dates in various parts of the country. Goldin eventually became more recognized for the trick, which he later updated to include a giant buzz saw and a woman appearing fully visible on a table.


Harry Kellar was no great showman—thick of fingers, he could be downright clumsy—but had exceptional taste in large-scale magic tricks. In 1884, he was concerned that a rival named Alex Herrmann could upstage him in markets where both had engagements. In addition to having a better stage presence, he feared Herrmann was trying to lure away one of his assistants, a clown and juggler named D’Alvini. By the 1890s, the two had resorted to papering over one another’s promotional posters. Both men enjoyed success, but it was Kellar whom Harry Houdini credited as being the greatest influence on his career.


Renowned Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo had success traveling the world with his act, but was surprised to find that his arrival in England in 1904 had been preceded by an imposter: "Chung Ling Soo" was the stage name of William Robinson, an American who had audaciously pretended to be Asian. While both were performing in London, Foo challenged Soo to a magic duel where Soo would have to successfully perform at least 10 of 20 chosen tricks. Soo (a.k.a. Robinson) performed the following day for newspapermen, but Foo declined to appear, insisting Soo first provide proof of his Chinese heritage. Most of Foo’s protests went unheard: Soo had been there first, and his persona was so convincing that many believed it was Foo who was the inauthentic one.

The American upstart’s career was derailed for good in 1918, when he died while unsuccessfully performing the “bullet catch” trick on stage.


Robert Sheaffer, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

A stage magician-turned-skeptic, James Randi has spent decades taking aim at those who present sleight-of-hand tricks as paranormal ability. One of his most famous rivalries came as a result of mentalist Uri Geller’s appearances on national television: Geller professed to be able to bend spoons and repair broken watches with his mental powers. Randi began a years-long pursuit of Geller, challenging him to reproduce his efforts in a controlled setting for a cash reward and even advising talk show host Johnny Carson not to let Geller near the silverware he planned on influencing before a Tonight Show segment. When Geller failed to bend anything with Carson supervising, Randi thought that might be the end of his popularity. Instead, some people assumed Geller's abilities must be genuine, as no magician would have failed in such a spectacular way. According to The New York Times, Geller and Randi sparred for decades via media appearances and lawsuits without ever burying the hatchet.


Possibly the two most famous magicians of the past quarter-century, David Copperfield and Criss Angel don’t appear to be bonding over their common interest of misdirection. Angel has repeatedly taken Copperfield to task for what he alleges is Copperfield “buying” Twitter followers and failing to follow up on promises to donate to charitable causes. Angel also appeared irked that some media outlets reported Copperfield was the highest-paid illusionist in the world.

Copperfield appears to have taken the high road, doing little to respond to Angel’s accusations aside from retweeting a Forbes profile crediting him as the top-earning magician. Copperfield can probably take solace in the fact that he was once named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress, an honor that has yet to be bestowed upon any other magician.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.