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8. Making and Playing with Models: Using Rapid Prototyping to Explore the History and Technology of Stage Magic
At sites around the world, self-identified makers, crafters, hackers, “edupunks,” and DIY (do-it-yourself) fabricators are forming a community that is in the process of taking on all of the hallmarks of a new social movement. The campaign is probably best summed up by MAKE magazine: “we celebrate your right to tweak, hack, and bend any technology to your will.” MAKE is published by O’Reilly Media, whose motto is “spreading the knowledge of technology innovators.” In addition to MAKE, O’Reilly also publishes a popular series of books on hacking (e.g., Tom Igoe’s Making Things Talk) and hosts blogs and forums. Articles in MAKE profile prominent makers, crafters, and hackers and provide step-by-step instruction in building projects at a variety of skill levels. Themagazine also editorializes against practices like the copy restriction of software and media and the confiscation of Swiss army knives and multi-tools in airports, and in favor of the open source ethos and of products that invite users “to look inside and see the moving parts . . . make repairs and improvements, and even harvest components once the product ceases to be useful.”
O’Reilly sponsors a national meeting (the Maker Faire) and provides publicity for local hacker-artist groups like Dorkbot, which meets in about eighty cities worldwide, including Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal. In addition to participating in real-world activities, community members are able to perform online in a variety of forums—including a do-it-yourself instruction website called Instructables—rehearsing core values of sharing and openness, resourcefulness, a can-do attitude, and a willingness Page 176to open the black box. If they wish, they can even buy T-shirts with slogans like “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it,” “re-use, re-cycle, re-make,” “hacking is not a crime!” and “Make: void your warranty, violate a user agreement, fry a circuit, blow a fuse, poke an eye out . . .” When President Barack Obama celebrated “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things” in his 2009 inaugural address, O’Reilly immediately emblazoned the phrase on a T-shirt.
The maker community extends far outside the ambit of O’Reilly Media, of course, overlapping with many other interest groups. It includes a global network of hackerspaces, workshops operated by community members who wish to share ideas, tools, and techniques, and to work collaboratively on projects. It includes efforts to crowdsource the production of everything from automobiles to prosthetics. And, most relevant to the work we describe here, it includes groups of people dedicated to producing software (like the programming language Processing), hardware platforms (like Arduino), and computer-controlled machines that are able to print small 3D objects (like RepRap). We discuss all three of these technologies below. In each case, the designers and makers profess an ethic of open source, making tutorials, plans, software, and construction details freely available online.
The present conjuncture—of making as a new social movement, of easy-to-use and freely available platforms that invite modification, of detailed online instructions for doing just about anything—makes it almost costless for historians and other humanists to research, teach, learn, play, and experiment with new technologies. These include digital technologies, of course, the blogs, wikis, podcasts, games, immersive worlds, and social media described by other contributors to this volume. We argue that the time is right for humanists to play and experiment with technologies of material production, too.
Manufacturers have been at the center of innovation in material products for centuries, but the work of researchers such as Eric von Hippel suggests that the balance is shifting somewhat. As the cost of computers and software has fallen, it has become possible for individuals to acquire the equipment necessary to design complicated artifacts and electronics using computer-aided design (CAD) software, and to program simulations and test and measurement routines for prototypes. Some people are motivated to do this, because, as von Hippel notes, the only group that benefits directly from innovation are the users of a good or service. “All others (here lumped under the term Page 177‘manufacturers’) must sell innovation-related products or services to users, indirectly or directly, in order to profit from innovations.” There is thus a strong incentive for users to be able to innovate on their own behalf, and the result has been a gradual “democratization of innovation” as more and more users have become involved in improving the services and products that they rely on. Furthermore, von Hippel’s work shows that communities of user-innovators are much more likely than manufacturers to give away information about their own developments, creating a public good.
In a number of fields of design, this transition has already occurred. The widespread availability of very inexpensive laser and photo printers, the incorporation of desktop publication features into word processing software, and the free availability of photographs, fonts, and clip art make it possible for just about anyone with a modicum of equipment to produce a pamphlet, newsletter, poster, or booklet that has the same high quality as the professional products of two decades ago. There are even online tutorials to teach the fundamentals of vector illustration, coloring, photographic manipulation, kerning, and so on. This is not to say that professional graphic design has disappeared, merely that professional designers must now distinguish themselves in a sea of amateurs. Digital cameras and sites like Flickr have changed the landscape of photography; digital video cameras, blogs, and YouTube have changed journalism; and so on.
Techniques of material fabrication are taught professionally through apprenticeship, trade schools, art and design schools, and university programs. But here we are not primarily concerned with the training and accreditation of a carpenter, welder, industrial designer, or mechanical engineer. There are a handful of people in the humanities who already have a deep professional background in one or more kinds of fabrication. There are far more humanists, however, who cook, sew, repair and restore furniture or automobiles, paint with acrylics, do home renovations, build dollhouses or rockets or model ships, design jewelry, or practice any of a thousand other kinds of making as hobby or avocation. But there is very little evidence for any of this creative activity in their scholarly output. One of the legacies of professionalization is the idea that we have particular areas of “competence” that are certified by the training or licensing that we have undergone, and that we are not permitted to stray outside these boundaries in our teaching or research. Ridiculous! Barring a tiny number of situations that involve public health or safety, national security, or something of the sort, we can and should experiment with whatever techniques we find most congenial for learning and teaching. Whenever possible, we should encourage our students to do the same.
In the past few decades, the cost of commercial computer-controlled rapid prototyping and fabrication devices dropped precipitously. News Page 178articles from the early 1990s put the price of an entry-level commercial setup close to the million-dollar mark. By the turn of the millennium, an equivalent system could be had for about a tenth as much. Within the decade, 3D printer kits for home-built fabricators like RepRap or MakerBot could be purchased for $5,000 or less. Meanwhile, services like Shapeways provide low-cost on-demand 3D printing for individuals. As with the earlier case of desktop publishing, this democratization of innovation will certainly not lead to the demise of professional industrial design and manufacturing, but it will open up the space of material fabrication and customization to the masses.
Like some commercially available 3D printers, the RepRap works by precisely positioning a tiny bead of molten plastic. If you have never seen one in action, imagine a robot wielding a tiny hot-glue gun, building up a 3D object one layer at a time. An example can be seen in figure 8.1. Unlike the commercial alternatives, however, the creators of RepRap are on a mission. The ultimate goal of these do-it-yourself manufacturers is to create a science-fiction-inspired replicator: a device that can make anything, including all of its own component parts. Many of them imagine a world far beyond the limitations of present-day technology, when people will have “wealth without money.” When an appliance breaks, its owner will be able to scan the broken part and print a replacement. Whenever anyone needs something, they will be able to download free plans and print out a copy. When they are done with it, they will recycle the components to be used for something new. This imagined future is one of cradle-to-cradle manufacturing, mass customization, and democratized innovation. Some of the claims made on behalf of personal fabrication are extreme; that the practice will, for example, “bring down global capitalism, start a second industrial revolution and save the environment.”
Although we suspect that none of those things will actually come to pass, RepRaps are fun to play with and good to think with, and they beg to be understood in historical context. Two such contexts come to mind immediately: the industrial revolution and the birth of the personal computer in the 1970s. Both developments were stimulated by a rapidly changing landscape of costs and opportunities. During the industrial revolution, an unprecedented ability to harness and concentrate energy led to the growth of capital-intensive factories. The revolution in personal computing was stimulated, in part, by the availability of inexpensive electronic modules in the form of integrated circuits. In both cases, amateurs played a very important role in innovation. The information costs associated with innovation have also been very different at different times, and a historically nuanced understanding of manufacturing and innovation in the present moment willPage 179
have to take these changes into account, particularly as humanists become makers themselves.
We are interested in personal fabrication as historians, and we know that if we want to understand technical practices or material artifacts, we need to go beyond words to the things themselves. This is imperative because there are good reasons for believing that much technical and scientific knowledge is tacit and embodied, and thus learned only with difficulty (and not by reading). Peter Dear, writing about the technical tracts of the medieval and early modern periods, says:
The historian William Eamon, in his studies of such literature, has characterized these “technical recipe books” as a means whereby the “veil of mystery” that had hitherto surrounded the practical crafts was lifted, so that ordinary people could see that the craftsman was not possessed of some arcane wisdom, but simply had knowledge of a set of techniques that, in principle, anyone could apply. This is not a notion that should be taken for granted, however. Studies in recent decades of the ways in which expert knowledge is constituted and passed on suggest that practitioners do indeed possess skills that are communicated only with difficulty. Their practical knowledge is Page 180often unlearnable from the eviscerated accounts that appear in the pages of experimental papers (in the sciences) or technical manuals (in skilled craftwork in general). Thus, if Eamon is right, the growing sense that developed during the sixteenth century, as a consequence of printing and its uses, that practical craft knowledge (“know how”) can be reduced to straightforward rules of procedure that can be acquired readily from books, was to a large degree an illusion. If this is so, it is an illusion that we have inherited.
Historians, for the most part, have tended to ignore this problem of learning tacit knowledge, and continue to concentrate on the representational sources with which they are most comfortable, even at the cost of being excluded from a crucial understanding of their subject matter.
Beyond understanding personal fabrication in historical context, we believe that it can play a central role in a new, experimental approach to the practice of history. In our work, we combine elements of traditional historical methodology with a reflexive pedagogical approach inspired by recent work in science and technology studies, and the hands-on, critical making that characterizes experimental archaeology. We follow Cyrus Mody and David Kaiser, who argue that pedagogy is a “central analytic category,” not “merely as formalized classroom teaching techniques . . . but rather as the entire constellation of training exercises through which novices become working scientists and engineers.” (From this perspective, pedagogy is central to our own development as humanists, too.) Participation in the reproduction of a community of practitioners holds out the hope of learning “broadly similar values, norms, and self understandings . . . not (or not only) in the abstract, but as enacted through daily interactions within specific settings.”
A related path to tacit knowledge is through the critical, reflexive practices of making that characterize experimental archaeology. As John Coles noted in the early 1970s, many of the nineteenth-century founders of archaeology experimented with stone tools, reproducing artifacts as a way of understanding the conditions of their manufacture and use. Over time, the experimental method has become more widely used in the discipline, as researchers attempt to replicate earlier methods of growing crops; storing and preparing food; building houses; working with stone, wood, bone, antler, metals and other materials; and making paper, pottery, and musical instruments. We might ask, where is the experimental history to match this practice in archaeology?
There have been precedents, of course, in both research and teaching. Generations of intro physics students have followed in Galileo’s footsteps by attempting to determine the law of motion using an inclined plane. Page 181Historians of science have not always believed that Galileo performed the experiment that he reported, however. In the 1950s, Alexander Koyré described Galileo’s experiments as “completely worthless,” due to the “amazing and pitiful poverty of [his] experimental means.” This view was subsequently challenged by Thomas Settle, who rebuilt the apparatus “essentially as Galileo described it,” and recorded results in accordance with Galileo’s. A further refinement was later provided by Stillman Drake. The historian of physics Robert Crease writes:
By carefully studying a page of Galileo’s notebook, Drake concluded that Galileo actually had arrived at the law using the inclined-plane method, but by marking out the time in a way that seems to have taken advantage of his strong musical training. As a competent lute player, Galileo could keep a beat precisely; a good musician could easily tap out a rhythm more accurately than any water timer could measure. Drake determined that Galileo had set frets into the track of the inclined plane—moveable gut strings of the kind used on early string instruments. When a ball was rolled down the track and passed over a fret, he would hear a slight clicking noise. Galileo, in Drake’s speculative reconstruction, then adjusted the frets so that a ball released at the top struck the frets in a regular tempo—which for the typical song of the day was just over half a second per beat. Once Galileo had marked out fairly exact time intervals, thanks to his musical ear, all he would have to do would be to measure the distances between frets.
Contemporary researchers like H. Otto Sibum, Mel Usselman, and Peter Heering have greatly extended the use of reconstruction, experiment, and re-enactment in writing the history of science. Their work provides new ways of understanding laboratory practices and the development of instrumentation, and directs attention to the importance of sensation and perception, material culture, and performance. Bruno Latour famously argued that scientific knowledge becomes encapsulated in “black boxes”; remaking experimental apparatus provides one way of temporarily reversing that process. This kind of practice can also be brought into the classroom. At MIT, Jed Buchwald and Louis Bucciarelli offered a “historic experimentation” course where students did a close reading of primary sources from the history of physics, then attempted to reconstruct the apparatus described and to replicate the reported results. For a number of years, Anne McCants has been working with various colleagues to offer hands-on courses on subjects like ancient and medieval cooking, and spinning and weaving fabrics. Outside the academy, crafters and reenactors make chain mail, fire matchlock Page 182muskets, grow heirloom vegetables, take daguerreotypes, and engage with the material past in an almost unimaginable variety of other ways.
Barbie and Ken Play Penn and Teller
As an example of the utility of rapid prototyping and the experimental method, we present an extended case study related to Devon Elliott’s doctoral work on the history and technology of stage magic. Working together, we have created a number of historical illusions at model scale. These models serve as demonstration devices; have a playful, toy-like quality; and are pedagogically comparable to various kinds of other model-scale teaching tools, like scale mechanisms or crime scene dioramas. By re-creating magical apparatus on dollhouse scale we are able to address a number of research questions: What design decisions were due to the constraints of particular media? How can we use the material culture perspective to read the production of various artifacts, including antique originals, modern replicas, and cheap plastic knockoffs? What new variations can we devise? How do these variations relate to the modern practices of stage magic? How does the possibility of mass customization change the art of illusion? What does the repeatability of a particular illusion or effect tell us about the history of sensation or perception? How does our own engagement with fabrication change our experience of what is methodologically possible?
There are a number of different types of magical effects but here we concentrate on two icons of performance: levitation and vanishing. In the early nineteenth century, Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin popularized an illusion known as la suspension éthéréenne (ethereal suspension) at his Soireés Fantastiques. The performer’s son was suspended under his arms by two braces and apparently given a dose of ether. After succumbing to the effects of the drug, one of the supports was removed, and yet the boy remained stationary on the other. His legs were then lifted and his body tilted horizontally to the floor, where it remained suspended unnaturally on a single support. Although Robert-Houdin’s performance appeared to defy the laws of nature, the fact that it required one visible support under his son’s arm was considered to be a technological weakness, especially when the method was published by Hoffmann in the popular press in the latter half of the nineteenth century. (In magicians’ terms, a suspension differs from a levitation by showing some means of visible support.)
Suspensions were not only a popular form of magical performance, but had been a part of English literary culture from the eighteenth century onward. Accounts of magical feats from India—and one in particular, Page 183which became known as the Indian Rope Trick—often took the form of suspensions. In that trick, a rope was cast into the air, where it remained as if attached to some invisible support. A boy climbed the rope and disappeared at the top. There was a commotion, and his dismembered limbs fell to the ground. Put into a basket, the remains of the boy were often restored, completing a death and resurrection performance. Although the trick was recounted in travelogues and other writings, the historian Peter Lamont has shown that such a performance likely never occurred, but was rather a literary construction, a legend. Even the Indian Rope Trick maintained a connection to the ground, however. Were it to be performed, attention would likely be drawn to the rope, and tracing the form of the rope would lead spectators to potential methods for accomplishing the feat. As a matter of practice, magicians and illusion designers strive to eliminate such weaknesses when designing effects. A stunt that appeared more magical would eliminate any visible means of support, and thus would appear to be a true levitation.
The first route to the performance of levitation came from suspension. The person to be levitated wore a harness hidden by clothing. The harness was attached at a single point to a rigid support hidden from the view of the audience by the bodies of the magician and the person levitated. Over time, magicians refined the performance to mask the support mechanism and draw attention away from it. The support was better fitted to the magician’s body. Even with refinements, the magician’s movements were limited by the need to hide the apparatus, and a stationary, physical prop on the stage was also often employed to hide the support. It was still a weakness of sorts. If a spectator accepted the idea that levitation required a hidden support, he or she only needed to study the form of the performance to deduce where the support must be.
Two of the premiere magicians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, John Nevil Maskelyne in England and Harry Kellar in America, both worked to improve the technology of levitation. Maskelyne was fortunate enough to have his own performance laboratory in the form of the Egyptian Hall stage. Continuously performing there, he could create and test new illusions that were improved iteratively and tailored to his venue. One of Maskelyne’s innovations was to introduce a “gooseneck,” an S-shaped bended form between body and support that allowed solid hoops to be passed over the levitated body, creating a more convincing impression of floating. Maskelyne’s other discovery was that thin threads on the stage were invisible to spectators. Each could support a small amount of weight, and when united, could lift a substantial load. Combining the gooseneck with a network of threads, Maskelyne revolutionized levitation, albeit in a Page 184form that was difficult to balance and tune and could not be easily moved from one venue to another.
In re-creating scale models of Maskelyne’s levitation, we wanted to work from a detailed description of the methods that he used to achieve his particular effect. Bruce Armstrong’s Encyclopedia of Suspensions and Levitations, published for magicians in 1976, is a good resource. Numerous methods are described along with drawings from earlier plans, and stage movements and performance details are given where available. We found that material characteristics such as rigidity and elasticity played a significant role in the believability of the levitation illusion at model scale. When Elliott printed a small gooseneck out of ABS on one of our MakerBots, it flexed when weighted, and the downward deflection of the levitating body was enough to spoil the illusion of floating. The original plans called for iron rod, one inch in diameter. To achieve a believable effect, we replaced the plastic support with a more rigid one made from a coat hanger. One of these levitation models can be seen in figure 8.2. The process of photographing our models also underlined the importance of stage lighting. An intense light from the wrong direction can cause the hidden support to cast telltale shadows.
Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stage magic drew on both technoscience—especially the class of effects that were previously known as “natural magic”—and spiritualism. The study of stage magic offers researchers one advantage that the study of spiritualistic phenomena does not: magicians often explained the secrets of their illusions somewhere. Methods were kept from audiences, of course, but shared among magicians in the form of books, journals, and plans that explained how to build the necessary apparatus. These directions guided a magician in constructing his (or much less frequently her) own device, but important details such as dimensions or materials were often unspecified, thus keeping part of the performance a secret. Only by making a device and experimenting with it could one eventually re-create the feat. Thus by building and performing illusions based on these incomplete plans, we are able to partially re-create the pedagogical context of stage magicians in this period. Later, a commercial manufacturing system allowed aspiring magicians to purchase apparatus for accomplishing illusions, and this appealed to an increasing number of amateurs, domestic performers who entertained family members in the home. These amateurs also had access to a growing DIY magic literature. As magical devices became commercialized, the hands-on, constructive element of magical practice was eliminated. The widespread availability of magical apparatus allowed a new breed of magicians to gain a prominent position in venues, like vaudeville, which drew a mass audience.
The other performer who worked to improve the technology of levitation was the American star Harry Kellar. Kellar visited London annually,Page 185
often accompanied by his chief mechanic, in order to study the new illusions that his rival Maskelyne was showing at Egyptian Hall. Kellar viewed Maskelyne’s levitation from the audience a number of times, but he was unable to discern its method. Finally he simply walked on stage during a performance, viewed the apparatus up close, then coerced one of Maskelyne’s assistants into explaining to him what he had just seen. Returning to the United States, he is rumored to have employed the Otis Elevator Company to help refine the idea and to make it work. The illusion went on to become a significant feature of Kellar’s show, featuring prominently on his playbills and advertising lithographs.
Maskelyne’s version of the levitation was precise and delicate, well-suited to a single venue but impractical for touring. Kellar refined the levitation so that it could be set up and dismantled readily at each venue that he played. (A poster advertising Kellar’s levitation appears in figure 8.3.) Since each stage had different dimensions and resources, Kellar’s version of levitation neededPage 186Page 187
to be adaptable and robust. When Kellar retired, he named Howard Thurston as his successor and passed a levitation apparatus on to him. Thurston continued to perform the levitation, created lengthier presentations for it, and eventually, to Kellar’s horror, invited witnesses from the audience on stage to view the levitation. The illusion that Thurston was showing to audience members was not Kellar’s final version of the levitation. He had continued to improve it for touring, eliminating the need to cut holes in the stage floor if none were already available or it was impossible to make such alterations. Dismayed by the direction that Thurston was taking, Kellar sold the improved levitation to Harry Blackstone. Other magicians imitated Kellar’s gall as well as his illusions. Carter the Great hired one of Thurston’s stagehands in order to learn the secret, and then wrote to Kellar to ask how to treat the lines in order to camouflage them on stage. Incensed, Kellar did not respond. Kellar’s secrets appeared in print in The Life and Mysteries of the Celebrated Dr. “Q” and a magic company in California advertised plans for the illusion, ensuring that it would continue to be performed as long as magic was popular on the stage. Installing, tuning, and using the apparatus was finicky, however, and the method went out of fashion. It is rarely seen today.
In re-creating models of the more elaborate levitations, we started with commercially available toys and used their measurements to determine the scale of other components. A levitation model scaled to a pair of commercial toys is shown in figure 8.4. The bodies of performers were particularly important in stage magic because the apparatus was often fitted to a particular person, limiting the number of other people who could use it. If a performer stopped working with a particular magician, her (or much less frequently his) replacement would have to have similar measurements and range of flexibility. The illusion designer Guy Jarrett used the dimensions of his own body as a basis for designing his apparatus, and discovered that hiding spaces could be made much smaller than previously thought. Audiences tended to assume that certain spaces were much too small to hold a person, which made illusions more convincing.
Our choice of toys also raised questions about the role of contemporary models in understanding historical events. Strict accuracy would suggest using a male magician with a female assistant, dressed in period costumes. The heyday of stage magic was also associated with stereotypical, exoticized, and frankly racist depictions of Asian peoples and culture: for example, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer Chung Ling Soo” was actually discovered upon his death in 1918 to be a New Yorker named William Ellsworth Robinson. We did not want to reproduce the gender roles or Orientalism of our historical actors unthinkingly, however, but rather to problematize them. So one of our model magicians looks roughly Mephistophelean, but willPage 188
be recognizable to some as a character of twenty-first-century fiction, and rather than working with a female model assistant, he levitates a block of wood and disappears a gender-indeterminate mummy inspired by cheesy horror movies. For other model magicians and assistants we used posable stick figures, anthropomorphic but lacking most other detail. Each choice is intended to provide entry points into further reflective discussion. What if we made Barbie the magician and Ken the assistant? What if a giant rabbit pulled a magician from a hat? And so on.
The process of building more elaborate models also foregrounded the importance of the stage itself as a venue for creating illusions. How did space, seating, lines of sight, viewing distance, or the prestige of the venue affect the perceptions of the audience? Stages were not entirely fixed: magicians might cut holes or traps to facilitate their methods. When Harry Blackstone toured, his stagehands were happy to use stages that Thurston had once performed on because Thurston’s people had already cut holes in the stage for the levitation wires. Stages also provided spaces to hide assistants and apparatus behind, below, and above the visible section. As we build more complicated models, we are drawn into the need to model the surrounding context of the stage, too. We substitute black thread for wires. In place of hydraulic lifts we use commercially available hobby gear-motors and servos. In place of human assistance, we use the open source Page 189microcontroller Arduino. Arduino has roughly the functionality of an early 1980s-era computer, but costs less than $50, fits into the space about the size of a deck of cards, and can be easily hooked up to sensors and actuators. We use Arduinos extensively in building interactive exhibits of all sorts. We can program an Arduino to turn on and off lights, draw and close curtains, play sound effects, raise and lower pieces of apparatus, and do just about anything else that we need to do to further an illusion. In addition to printing out custom plastic parts on a RepRap, we fabricate stage and apparatus from foamcore, peg board, masonite, lightweight woods like basswood and balsa, metal construction kits (e.g., VEX robotics), and other modeling materials. After building a prototype by hand, we have the option of laser scanning pieces to create a 3D model, and then milling out further versions with small CNC (computer numerator control) mills and lathes. Rapid prototyping allows us to iteratively improve stage and effects, in much the same way that Maskelyne was able to continually improve his own equipment and performances. In keeping with the open source ethos of the community, we also share ideas and improvements in blogs and forums and on sites like Thingiverse and Instructables.
A second type of illusion that we have re-created at model scale is the vanish. For centuries, magicians have vanished small objects such as coins and cork balls using sleight-of-hand. In the nineteenth century, magicians directed their attention toward vanishing the human body. Illusions such as Pepper’s Ghost used optics to make spectral images appear, transform, and disappear; other effects relied on carefully placed mirrors. In 1886, Buatier de Kolta performed L’escamotage d’une dame en personne vivante (the vanishing lady). A newspaper was unfolded on the stage and a chair placed on the newspaper. A woman sat down and was covered with a sheet. Her form could be seen through the sheet right up to the moment the magician pulled it away, when she apparently vanished. The trick was front-page news in London for a full month. Karen Beckman writes that “this spectacle of vanishing both reflects and refutes Victorian anxieties about female surplus, offering us important insights about Britain’s relationship not only with the early feminist movement but with domestic political issues of unemployment and the care of the poor.”
While rebuilding a simple vanishing cabinet, we encountered many familiar questions in somewhat altered form: choice of actors, staging, lighting, materials, mechanisms; directing attention and controlling lines of sight; hiding the gimmick; and so on. A photo sequence of the vanishing cabinet model appears in figure 8.5. Vanishing also raises epistemological questions. How do you communicate the idea that something is no longer present, especially when it really does remain but is unseen? An object (or person) is introducedPage 190
and made familiar. When it disappears, its absence has to be emphasized by what remains. As one builds and works with the models, one takes on roles of apparatus builder, magician, assistant, and audience member.
Spaces for Making and Playing
It is a sad fact that, in North America at least, most of the spaces available for graduate teaching and learning in the humanities are less suitable for hands-on making and experimenting than just about any kindergarten classroom in the country. We know that this kind of activity is crucial for child development, but is there any evidence that it is less crucial for people in other age groups? For at least a century, scholars like John Dewey, Jane Addams, and the members of the Bauhaus and the Foxfire projects have argued (in Page 191different ways, of course) that useful making and doing are an essential part of learning. This is not something new, it is something we seem condemned to repeat. Teachers or students who want to introduce hands-on work into the humanities often face an initial problem of finding suitable spaces to make things; to store tools, supplies, and work-in-progress; and to demonstrate final projects. Part of the challenge of playful learning is getting out of—and getting rid of—carpeted beige cubbyholes designed for office labor.
Making and playing with models is one part of our wider practice as researchers, teachers, and (perpetual) students. In classrooms and workshops we ask people to consider how history would be different if it were presented in the form of an appliance: we turn on a tap and water comes out; what if we could turn on a device and it “dispensed” history? How does our historical consciousness change when ideas are presented in the form of a toy, game, gadget, device, situation, or environment? How does our imaginative engagement with material culture allow us to communicate tacit knowledge or more sensuous understandings of the past? Allowed to brainstorm, students come up with delightful projects, some realizable and some pure fantasy. Public history graduate students at Western University in Ontario, for example, imagined
- Heritage knitting needles. Passed down within a family, they remember every pattern that they have been used to create. You might use them to knit a copy of the same blanket that your grandmother made for your mother when she was a baby.
- Reverse “babel fish.” Put this device in your ear, and everyone around you will appear to be speaking Old English. Rather than a translating device, this helps to communicate the idea that “the past is a foreign country.”
- Yelling documents. A bad-tempered microfilm reader that can correct you when you make an untenable interpretation of a source.
- Tangible spray. An aerosol that creates a cloud of mist. Reach into the cloud to feel the past. When it dissolves, you are left grasping thin air.
In our interactive exhibit design course, graduate students learn to create 3D representations by drafting with SketchUp and by scanning with laser or touch probe. They can then go on to materialize their designs in paper using a CNC cutter like the Craft Robo, in plastic with MakerBots, in wood or acrylic with a laser cutter, or in various media through subtractive machining. They can then combine these digital and physical objects with laptop computers and electronic components like Arduino to create museum exhibits that have interactive, tangible, or ambient components. In Page 192recent classes, students have created a working model of Sputnik, a simple robot that re-creates historic plays on a tabletop hockey game, and a wearable museum exhibit, among many other projects.
In the context of a public history graduate program, we have been fortunate to work with librarians, curators, K–12 teachers, and educational technology specialists who have access to different spaces and different mind-sets. We have also found a lot of enthusiasm in local communities of artists, crafters, and hackers. If you want to do something similar and are drawing blank stares in your own department, try working from the outside in: join a hackerspace or crafting group and start there. Or invite like-minded individuals to work with you in your garage, your basement, or your uncle’s barn. When you have something to share, put it online, blog or tweet about it, and show it to your colleagues, students, or classmates. Everyone is welcome in the DIY movement, and the most important thing that we tweak, hack, and bend to our will may be the process of learning itself. Remember, “if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”
Generous support for this work was provided in part by SSHRC (Research Development Initiatives grants, 2005–7, 2009–11); by Image, Text, Sounds and Technology grants (2007–9, 2009–11); and by Western University (Fellowship in Teaching Innovation, 2005; Research Western, 2007–12).
1. Charles Tilly, Social Movements, 1768–2004 (Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2004). According to Tilly, a new social movement is characterized by the innovative synthesis of three things: a campaign; a repertoire of performances; and displays of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment. Each of these is evident in the community of makers, widely construed. Makers also constitute a “recursive public” in the sense of Christopher M. Kelty, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2008).
2. Tom Igoe, Making Things Talk (Sebastopol: O’Reilly, 2007). O’Reilly also published a companion magazine called CRAFT, now defunct, and regularly updates a site on craft projects, http://craftzine.com.
4. See the Dorkbot website, accessed July 31, 2012, http://dorkbot.org. Dorkbot also meets in Second Life.
5. Barack Obama, “President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address,” The White House Blog (January 21, 2009), accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/inaugural-address/. For the t-shirt, see http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2009/01/winner_make_the_risktakers_the_doer.html, accessed April 16, 2010.
6. See http://hackerspaces.org/wiki/, accessed April 16, 2010. Hackerspaces have already sprung up in many Canadian cities. See, for example, VHS in Vancouver, accessed July 31, 2012, http://vancouver.hackspace.ca/doku.php; THINK|HAUS in Hamilton, accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.thinkhaus.org/; Kwartzlab in Kitchener-Waterloo, Page 193accessed July 31, 2012, http://kwartzlab.ca/; unLab in London, accessed July 31, 2012, http://unlondon.ca; or hacklab.to in Toronto, accessed July 22, 2010, http://hacklab.to/. Elliott is a member of the London unLab.
7. For automobiles, see Local Motors, http://www.local-motors.com, accessed April 16, 2010; Chris Anderson, “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms are the New Bits,” Wired 18, no. 2 (February 2010), accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/01/ff_newrevolution/; Joel Johnson, “Atoms are Not Bits; Wired is Not a Business Magazine,” Gizmodo (January 26, 2010), accessed July 31, 2012, http://gizmodo.com/5457461/atoms-are-not-bits-wired-is-not-a-business-magazine. For prosthetics, see The Open Prosthetics Project, http://openprosthetics.org, accessed April 16, 2010.
9. Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005); Phillip Torrone, “Open Source Hardware, What is It? Here’s a Start . . . ,” MAKE: Blog (April 23, 2007).
10. For games, see chapters in this volume by Gouglas et al. (chapter 6), Graham (chapter 10), Kee and Graham (chapter 13), McCall (chapter 11), and Compeau and MacDougall (chapter 4); Levy and Dawson (chapter 3) and Dunae and Lutz (chapter 14) describe immersive worlds; the other contributors invoke a wide variety of other online and digital media.
11. Eric von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005); idem, The Sources of Innovation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); idem, “The Dominant Role of Users in the Scientific Instrument Innovation Process,” Research Policy 5, no. 3 (1976): 212–39.
12. von Hippel, Democratizing Innovation, 3. Of course, the same logic suggests that humanists will be best served by software that they create for themselves. Ramsay’s chapter in this volume provides a particularly striking example.
13. By comparison, the first widely available laser printer, the Apple LaserWriter, had a starting price around $7,000 in 1985. A MakerBot, a RepRap derivative kit, could be purchased in 2010 for U.S. $750 at http://makerbot.com, accessed April 16, 2010. Between the two of us, we have already built a RepRap and four MakerBots, have helped to build three or four other MakerBots, and have two more RepRaps under construction.
14. See Shapeways, accessed April 16, 2010, http://www.shapeways.com.
20. For the industrial revolution, see, for example, Anthony F. C. Wallace, Rockdale: The Growth of an American Village in the Early Industrial Revolution (New York: Page 194Knopf, 1978); Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002); Margaret C. Jacob and Larry Stewart, Practical Matter: Newton’s Science in the Service of Industry and Empire 1687–1851 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004); for personal computers, see Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, Computer: A History of the Information Age (New York: Basic, 1996); Paul E. Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003); Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).
22. Michael S. Mahoney, “Reading a Machine,” Ms., Princeton University, 1996, accessed April 18, 2010, http://www.princeton.edu/~hos/h398/readmach/modeltfr.html.
25. For a related discussion, see Nowviskie’s chapter in this volume about the relationship between procedural work and interpretive work (chapter 7), and the important role of the agent that interprets and performs a given procedure. Nowviskie herself is an active member of a crafting community.
26. Cyrus Mody and David Kaiser, “Scientific Training and the Creation of Scientific Knowledge,” in The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies,3rd ed., ed. Edward J. Hackett, Olga Amsterdamska, Michael Lynch, and Judy Wajcman (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008), 378.
27. John Coles, Archaeology by Experiment (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1973); Daniel Ingersoll, John E. Yellen, and William Macdonald, eds., Experimental Archeology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977); Heather Margaret-Louise Miller, Archaeological Approaches to Technology (Amsterdam: Academic, 2007); Penny Cunningham, Julia Heeb, and Roeland Paardekooper, eds., Experiencing Archaeology by Experiment (Oxford: Oxbow, 2008). Some of our colleagues in archaeology practice experimental methods; some do not and have suggested to us that the subdiscipline is in decline. We do not know if that is the case, but if it is we observe that the fortunes of any particular method often have more to do with social factors than effectiveness. We would not be surprised to see the rise of a new generation of experimentalists.
29. H. Otto Sibum, “Experimental History of Science,” in Museums of Modern Science: Nobel Symposium 112, ed. Svante Lindqvist (Canton, Mass.: Science History Publications, 1999), 77–86; Melvyn C. Usselman, Alan J. Rocke, Christina Reinhart, and Kelly Foulser, “Restaging Liebig: A Study in the Replication of Experiments,” Annals of Science 62 (2005): 1–55; Peter Heering, “Regular Twists: Replicating Coulomb’s Wire-Torsion Experiments,” Physics in Perspective 8, no. 1 (March 2006): 52–63.Page 195
31. We have recently been in touch with Glen Bull, who is leading a project entitled Fab@School: A Digital Fabrication Laboratory for the Classroom, funded in 2010 for K–12 education. See http://www.digitalfabrication.org/ accessed July 25, 2010.
32. Jed Z. Buchwald and Louis Bucciarelli, “Historic Experimentation” (syllabus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1999), accessed April 16, 2010, http://www.aip.org/history/syllabi/experiments.htm.
33. See, for example, Anne McCants and Margo Collett, “Old Food: Ancient and Medieval Cooking” (syllabus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010); Anne McCants, Margo Collett, and Miranda Knutson, “The Distaff Arts: Medieval Clothing Technology” (syllabus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2010); Lynda Morgenroth and Emily Hiestand, “Medieval Tech: The Vibrant ‘Old Ways’ of Historian Anne McCants,” in Soundings (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, Spring 2010).
34. “Make Chainmail,” accessed April 18, 2010, http://www.wikihow.com/Make-Chainmail.
35. YouTube, accessed April 18, 2010, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KTS8PQ06Qo.
36. Seed Savers, accessed April 18, 2010, http://www.seedsavers.org/.
37. Daguerrre, accessed April 18, 2010, http://www.daguerre.org/.
39. Elliott is also a practicing magician and a card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians. He started performing as a child and has worked at a variety of venues, from birthday parties and street festivals to fairs and exhibitions.
40. For mechanical scale models, see the Kinematic Models for Design Digital Library, accessed April 19, 2010, http://kmoddl.library.cornell.edu/; for crime scene dioramas, see Corinne May Botz, The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (New York: Monacelli, 2004); Thomas Mauriello with Ann Darby, The Dollhouse Murders: A Forensic Expert Investigates 6 Little Crimes (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pi, 2004).
41. For classification, see S. H. Sharpe and Todd Karr, Neo-Magic Artistry (Los Angeles: The Miracle Factory, 2000), which includes a reprint of Sharpe’s 1932 Neo Magic, 43–52; Dariel Fitzkee, The Trick Brain (San Rafael: San Rafael House, 1944), 21–31; Peter Lamont and Richard Wiseman, Magic in Theory: An Introduction to the Theoretical and Psychological Elements of Conjuring (England, Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire, 1999).
42. Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, Memoirs of Robert-Houdin, Ambassador, Author and Conjurer, Lascelles Wraxall translation of Confidences d’un prestidigitateur (London: Chapman and Hall, 1860), accessed July 30, 2012, http://www.archive.org/details/memoirsofroberth00roberich; Angelo John Lewis Hoffmann, Modern Magic: A Practical Treatise on the Art of Conjuring (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1877), accessed July 30, 2010, http://www.archive.org/details/modernmagic00hoffgoog. Simon During, Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002), 129, describes this as “an illusion which provoked angry letters accusing Robert-Houdin of child abuse.”Page 196
44. Bruce Armstrong, ed., Encyclopedia of Suspensions and Levitations (Calgary: M. Hades International, 1976); Albert A. Hopkins, ed., and Henry Ridgely Evans, Magic: Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, Including Trick Photography (New York: Arno, 1977 ), 31–34; Jim Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003), 164. The illusion shown in figure 8.2 uses a variant of Maskelyne’s gooseneck.
45. Magicians themselves tend to think of the period from the 1880s to the 1930s as the golden age of stage magic—for example, see Milbourne Christopher and Maurine Christopher, The Illustrated History of Magic, updated ed. (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006). A much wider perspective is provided by Noel Daniel, Mike Caveney, and Jim Steinmeyer, Magic, 1400s–1950s (Köln: Taschen, 2009).
46. Although Maskelyne did not found the stage, he was able to gain control of it and turn it into a venue known for magic. Egyptian Hall was originally established as a museum and exhibit hall, featuring an Egyptian collection.
48. Although spiritualists did describe how to hold séances, query spirits, attempt automatic writing and table rapping, and so on, they explained apparently magical phenomena by reference to spirits, with whom they claimed to be in contact. Spiritualists of the period, like Daniel Douglas Home, used levitation during séances. Peter Lamont, The First Psychic: The Peculiar Mystery of a Notorious Victorian Wizard (London: Little, Brown, 2005).
49. Cf. Robert W. Snyder, “The Vaudeville Circuit: A Prehistory of the Mass Audience,” in Audiencemaking: How the Media Create the Audience, ed. James S. Ettema and D. Charles Whitney (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994), 215–31; Hoffmann’s was one early book that widely exposed the methods and diagrams of magical apparatus.
51. Marian Hannah Winter, The Theatre of Marvels, trans. Charles Meldon (New York: B. Blom, 1964). There are copies of the posters at the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas and at the Library of Congress. The image shown here is from the Library of Congress, accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/var.0259/. It measures 46 cm x 34 cm and was published by the Strobridge Lithography Company of New York around 1894. For other digital copies, see http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/var.0258/ and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/var.1896/, accessed July 31 2012.
52. Guy E. Jarrett and Jim Steinmeyer, The Complete Jarrett (Burbank: Hahne, 2001 ); Armstrong; Steinmeyer, Hiding the Elephant. Armstrong includes a number of other performance details for the levitation: one of Howard Thurston’s scripts, music used by different performers during the act, comments from assistants who worked with the illusions, and so on.
55. Conlin Alexander, The Life and Mysteries of the Celebrated Dr. “Q” (Los Angeles: Alexander, 1921). Republished in Darryl Beckmann, The Life and Times of Alexander, The Man Who Knows, A Personal Scrapbook (Rolling Bay, WA: Rolling Bay Press, 1994).
56. It was revived in the 1990s by John Gaughan and Jim Steinmeyer, illusion builders and magic historians, and performed at an invitation-only gathering of elite magicians and magic historians in Los Angeles.Page 197
59. We note in passing that houses, spaceships, secret forts, and a variety of other kinds of environment may be purchased for many commercially available dolls and action figures. This situatedness of play with toys forms an important resource for us, and a direction for further research.
66. “The Maker’s Bill of Rights,” Make Magazine, accessed July 31, 2012, http://makezine.com/04/ownyourown/.