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Three generations of Maskelyne magicians: The son, the father and the grandfather with brilliant minds

Tijana Radeska
Maskelyne magicians
Maskelyne magicians

Three generations of wonderful minds. That’s what the Maskelynes are. Performing illusions and providing a world of magic to the audience. And that’s not all. The three of them also contributed to the world with their knowledge and inventions.

John Nevil Maskelyne 1839-1917

John Nevil Maskelyne 1839-1917

The first one was John Nevil Maskelyne, born in 1839 in England. In his early age, he learned to become a watchmaker.

He became interested in performing magic after he saw the Davenport brothers at his local Town Hall.

He immediately understood the principle of how the Davenports’ spirit cabinet illusion worked and told the audience that he could provide the same effect for them without having supernatural powers.

The Davenport brothers

The Davenport brothers

He rebuilt the music cabinet with the assistance of his friend George Alfred Cooke and with it, he exposed the fraud  of the Davenport brothers.

That was the first public performance of Maskelyne and inspired by the illusion itself and his success he went on to perform more shows, slowly creating his own illusions and inventions.

With the help of his friend George Cooke, Maskelyne created many illusions that are still performed today.

Even though is usually said for levitation to be an invention by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin that’s incorrect, cause it was Maskelyne who invented it.

A freestanding, coin-operated pay toilet stall in Paris

A freestanding, coin-operated pay toilet stall in Paris

John Nevil Maskelyne is the inventor of many devices among which included the pay toilet. In 1914, he established the Occult Committee which members worked on investigating and exposing frauds related to Spiritualism, such as people who claimed to possess and who performed their “supernatural” abilities.

He also wrote Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill in 1894, which is considered a classic analysis of card sharp practices.

Nevil Maskelyne circa 1903

Nevil Maskelyne circa 1903

He had a son – Nevil Maskelyne, born in 1863, who was also a professional magician and inventor.

Compared to his father and his son, Nevil Maskelyne is less noted as a magician and more as an inventor or a manager. After the death of his father, he took the control of Maskelyne’s Ltd.

He was also the manager of Anglo-American Telegraph Company which had the control of the patents by Valdemar Poulsen.

He had a profound knowledge wireless telegraphy and in 1903, in the early days of radio, he hacked the wireless telegraphy of Guglielmo Marconi who advertised “secure and private communication.”

Maskelyne broadcasted his own message in order to prove Marconi’s claims wrong.

Marconi's first transmitter

Marconi’s first transmitter

He got married in 1890 and had a son – Jasper Maskelyne, born in 1902, who also was a stage magician. He was also a camoufleur during the WWII and is most known for his stories on wartime exploits.

He was very talented and successful magician whose tricks included sleight of hand, card and rope tricks, and illusions of “mind-reading”. When WWII started, he joined the Royal Engineers as a camoufleur.

Jasper Maskelyne, 1902–1973

Jasper Maskelyne, 1902–1973

It is not certain, but there is a story that he was accepted after he made the skeptical officers believe that there was a German warship on the Thames, which in fact was an illusion that Maskelyne created by using mirrors and a model.

There were divided opinions about Maskelyne. Some people such as Julian Trevelyan, have written that he was “rather unsuccessful”, for example when he was supposed to camouflage “concrete pill-boxes.”

On the other hand, while he was working for MI9 in Cairo, Maskelyne lectured escape techniques to the soldiers and created devices intended to assist them if captured.

Jasper Maskelyne and his magic troupe departing from Nairobi in 1950. Jasper Maskelyne is on the right, touching the arm of Yvonne Helliwell, his stage assistant

Jasper Maskelyne and his magic troupe departing from Nairobi in 1950. Jasper Maskelyne is on the right, touching the arm of Yvonne Helliwell, his stage assistant

He was also a member of Geoffrey Barkas’s camouflage unit for a short period of time before he was appointed the head of “Camouflage Experimental Section” at Abbassia.

But only after a year, the section proved unsuccessful and Maskelyne was given the role of a simple entertainer for the soldiers.

David Fisher was Maskelyne’s ghost writer who in 1949 wrote the book Magic: Top Secret. In it, Fisher describes Maskelyne’s abilities for magic as extravagant.

He claims that Maskelyne was responsible for cities disappearing, armies relocating, dummies proliferating (even submarines). He was also known as arrogant and egotistical.

An inflatable dummy Sherman tank, one of many deceptions that Maskelyne claimed to have created

An inflatable dummy Sherman tank, one of many deceptions that Maskelyne claimed to have created

However, it was soon revealed that such things never happened and that Maskelyne never received an official recognition.

Here is another magic story from our vault:The Davenport brothers deceived audiences for ten years into believing they possessed supernatural powers, when all they did was a magic trick

He was also known as arrogant and egotistical. For such a person not being praised was very humiliating and destructive, so Maskelyne died bitter and drunk.