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Experiments, products and tips based on chemistry, to get familiar with this little-known branch of magic.Color-changing liquids, magic inks, smoke, fire, 17 ready routines... plus: a brief history of Chemical Magic, safety rules, etc. The Authors are a chemist and a conjurer. Preface by Erix Logan
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A new handbook
Experiments, products and tips
Preface by Erix Logan
Copyright © 2016
Luigi Garlaschelli, Alex Rusconi
English translation © 2017, BarbaraPatrizi
All rights reserved
Cover photo and graphics
I always thought that my diploma as an agricultural engineer was the farthest thing from my job I could think of. Over time I became more and more convinced that any other school career would have been more useful to an illusionist, from electrical engineering, considering the ever-increasing use of electronics, to a humanities-oriented high school that would have given me the cultural and linguistic background to write my lines.
Yet being invited by Alex Rusconi and Luigi Garlaschelli to write this preface tells me that I was wrong.
Every school is useful. In particular, I still remember the hours spent in my high school’s chemistry lab and how I loved the subject. Nothing happens by chance in life, everything is connected – chemistry has returned to knock on my door and, faithful to itself, gives me an "explosive" reaction!
I can see myself, covered in soot from head to toe, my clothes burnt and still smoking, telling you, in the tradition of modern commercials, that you have to buy this book because its price is nothing compared to the hundreds of Euros you will save by following the instructions it gives you to make exactly what you now buy at significantly higher costs. Still, I’ll hold my imagination in check and carefully stick to its contents with utmost objectivity.
This is a book of awareness. It makes us aware that Alchemy and Chemistry are not related. It makes us realize that everything in our everyday life is the fruit of a chemical process at some stage of its creation. But above all it fills an important role, acting as the first analytical treatise on the possibilities that Chemistry offers to the Art of Magic. How many possibilities! How many ideas, new games, and special effects can arise from the combination of all the elements you’ll discover in this book!
Starting from some much-needed instructions regarding safety – as chemistry, just like any other science, is not without risk – the authors offer us a short historical background that makes us realize how much has been carried out and published regarding this subject over the centuries.
What follows is an analysis of all the chemical gimmicks every magician regularly uses up to the scenic effects of smoke, fire and pyrotechnics through analysis of a great number of formulas and reactions. All this is accompanied by amusing tricks that allow us to put into practice what we have learnt right away.
Not surprisingly, the book also offers us a section on presentation, a useful aspect as it is extremely important to the performance of any trick, with great tips that come from direct field experience and which are timeless.
Full of practical information like websites where we can continue our research, the authors bring the application of chemistry to magic to a new and higher level, but with an important premise: this book is not absolute or exhaustive. This means that it is important to continue experimenting and studying possible future applications of the chemical principles to our beloved Art.
But now I have to go, not only to leave room for the book but also because it's time to follow its instructions and make a nice instant tea, enjoying the sight of one of the most visual and amazing magical-chemical effects.
Thanks you, Authors, even for this.
With the phrase chemical magic we mean the use of chemical principles and reactions during a prestidigitation or illusionistic trick. It is therefore different from amusing chemistry, which is all about pretty reactions presented for what they are, i.e. chemical experiments.
Using chemical magic, therefore, is about using chemical principles in a way the audience doesn’t see. An example which we will encounter in the book is that of a small tin foil ball that warms in the spectator's hands, apparently because of the hypnotic suggestion made by the magician. Another example may be the use of roughing fluid on playing cards or cardboard pieces. Chemical elements, therefore, hiding behind effects that, apparently, have nothing to do with powders, acids, tubes, and so on...
Conversely, when a magician generates smoke from thin air or when he makes a candle disappear in a flash and transform into a silk scarf, for example, then the audience may suspect the use of chemical elements although it tends to accept them as part of the suspension of disbelief that is a feature of the theatre.
Then there are the flourishes, i.e. all those embellishments that make up the background of the show or of a particular trick. For example, flourishes could be the magician or his assistant appearing in a puff of smoke, a flash on stage, or magic pots spewing out smoke in the background.
In this book we present various chemical magic principles and experiments, great ways to use it at its fullest extent, and tips and suggestions to best use the resources provided. We the authors, a chemist and a magician, will guide you, the reader, into this colorful world, holding you by the hand, careful not to hurt you.
Of course, in some cases we only suggests tricks: it will be your imagination and fancy which will give life to those ideas we leave at embryo stage.
This book does not claim to be complete and exhaustive. However, it talks about a topic that is usually poorly covered, badly and with little skill, in manuals for magicians. It also wants to open a door to a universe of extraordinary scenic possibilities. Follow us on this journey of magic, art, and science.
Notes from a chemist
When handling chemicals, it's always important to follow some common safety rules. In general, chemicals should be stored in a safe place, away from children, pets, and strangers. If you cannot set up a home laboratory you should at least organize a space dedicated to the chemicals you use. You can store them in a cupboard or cabinet as you prefer; the main thing is that these products are in a place that is neither too hot nor too humid so as to preserve them in the best possible way. Furthermore, if you have children or frequent guests at home, ensure your chemicals are under lock and key.
Chemicals should never be tasted, even if they appear safe; fumes should never be breathed directly.
When handling concentrated acids or bases, you should always wear disposable gloves. It is also of utmost importance to avoid splashing or accidental spills; should this happen, wash immediately and thoroughly with water.
However, once you make sure to follow safety rules, you shouldn’t be scared by chemicals: they should be respected, and not demonized. Keep in mind that many of the products we will talk about in this book are the ones that we use daily in our homes like baking soda, muriatic acid, the liquid commonly used to unclog sinks, and so on.
Safety also depends on the amount of chemical you are using. It is for this reason that you should try an experiment again and again, albeit always carefully, in order to know when and how it works, and how much product to use. Chemical reactions in fact sometimes depend on the amount of reagents you use: if you put too little, the reaction may happen partially or not at all to our embarrassment while if you put too much the reaction might be a violent one. In short, try and standardize the quantities and keep a close look on the speed of the reaction: not all are immediate.
Where to find chemicals
Finding chemicals can often prove difficult as specialist firms, those that normally supply qualified labs, are often reluctant to sell to private individuals.
Even if you're lucky, according to our own experience, if you don’t have a VAT registration number and you are not a company that uses chemicals, they won’t sell you products like the so-called "controlled substances", which could be used to synthesize drugs or explosives.
However, if you have access to a lab through friends or acquaintances or for work reasons, you will often be able to take home – maybe for free – small quantities of the various products you need.
Internet is another place you can find chemicals on websites like Ebay although they often come from abroad, with the related bureaucratic and custom problems. Still, the Internet is very useful as, through search engines, you can discover more about a given product and find a roundabout way to get your hands on it: for example, sulfuric acid is used to unclog sinks, methanol is a fuel used in hobby modeling, and so on.
In fact, if you shop carefully you can find some chemicals like demineralized water (not pure), pellets of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), sodium perborate, 3% hydrogen peroxide, diluted hydrochloric acid (the clear, iron-free one), sodium carbonate, and baking soda even in supermarkets. The problem, for the less experienced, is finding them among other items, and the purity of such chemicals. Hardware shops and DIY stores, on the other hand, sell 35% hydrogen chloride 33% hydrogen peroxide.
The best place, however, to find chemicals is the drugstore where you can find real treasures hidden in their warehouses or among the shelves. Of course, in this case if you want to have access to these treasures or ask for more information on the various products, it is best you turn to a shop or pharmacist you know well so as to be able to explain what you need the products for without awkwardness. After all, should he not have what you need, a good pharmacist always has the possibility of getting almost anything.
Some of the products used in this book may require a medical prescription. In this case, it is a good idea to become friends with your doctor so that, knowing about your hobby, he or she will know why you need 300 gr. of ferric chloride or half liter of concentrated ammonia and won’t bat an eye.
Your very own lab
Given the danger of some ingredients and their tendency to cause damage when they come into contact with other objects, it would be desirable for those who plan to devote themselves to chemical magic to create a small lab in their house, devoting a room or part of it to their hobby.
Those, on the other hand, who already have a room or a storeroom dedicated to magic experiments can find a corner in which to store and try out chemicals. It is particularly important for those who have young children that the products are used for experiments are far from their reach, bearing in mind that ‘magic’ or strange objects are always an irresistible call for the young.
A necessary part of you lab will surely be a table for experiments. We recommend a metal table, durable and easy to wash, with a wood or plastic cover for when you need to use acids that may affect metals. The table should be well lit and, if possible, placed next to a window. In general, your experiment room should be very well ventilated.
The glasses, jars, and teaspoons that you use for your experiments (and which are not the same you use in the kitchen!) can find place on a shelf, along with all the non-dangerous objects you might need. The latter include a small precision scale (which is absolutely essential and which will have to weigh at least a tenth of a gram. You can find them easily as they are used for food as well), a measuring glass, tubes and syringes, a thermometer, etc. As for chemical glassware, you can easily find it at specialized stores or by browsing the internet.
To accurately measure the volume of a solution when it is of few cubic centimeters, a good idea would be to use graduated plunger pipettes. However, you can also use plastic graduated syringes of the right size, if need be. What is important it to remember to wash them thoroughly after using them to avoid mixing reagent residues.
Don’t forget white coats, gloves, and masks, which are indispensable when using or blending certain products that can be harmful if touched or which can simply damage your clothing.
But now let’s move on to our chemicals. These must be carefully preserved and stored according to specific temperature conditions as some need to be kept in a cool, dry place while others need low temperatures. A small refrigerator (mini-bar type) is therefore useful in your lab, best if placed in a cabinet that can be locked.
Containers too should be chosen with care. Except when you decide to keep the product in its original packaging, always remember that chemicals often need specific containers. Acids, for example, should be stored in glass or hard plastic bottles but never in metal containers. 35% hydrogen peroxide, on the other hand, require a special cap with a vent valve, as we will discuss later.
Another thing that is very important and should never be underestimated is the labeling of your products, even when you choose to store them outside their original packaging (which is often homemade anyway). Make sure there is a clear label on each bottle or container indicating the contents, with the various specifications (for example, “Concentrated Hydrochloric Acid, 36%”).
If you make these labels yourself, be sure to clearly mark the danger factor of each product and any precautions you will find in this book.
Once you have your very own lab, with all the various accessories and products, you will surely want to try experimenting. However, we strongly advise against mixing products or making experiments that are not in this book or that you are not sure of the result. As we will often repeat in these pages, some of the products shown are really dangerous, especially when they are used or mixed together without prior knowledge of the subject. If you have any doubts, turn to a chemist and avoid personal initiatives.
Notes from a magician
The importance of presentation
For chemical magic – or any other kind of magic, really – to charm the audience and involve it in the special effects proposed requires a proper presentation.
By now we all know that the same tricks presented by different artists do not receive the same favor from the audience. There is, in fact, a factor that we must constantly keep in mind whenever we perform in public and, above all, when we are training at home: presentation. This is the most important ingredient of any magic trick, and even more so when we talk of chemical magic. Basically, if we decide to break up a trick in percentages, presentation is about 80% of it, and it's what later engineers the audience's reaction to our performance.
The book Silvan’s Handbook (Il Manuale di Silvan) begins with this quote attributed to Rossetti: “Knowing a trick is nothing, being able to perform it is something, presenting it well is everything!”
Defining the idea of presentation is a difficult task and one that requires a lot of patience both from the writer and from the reader. It is difficult because the topic is so vast that not even an entire library could describe, case by case, all the expressions and ways to present even a single magic trick.
The first step is to decide what kind of character we are on the stage and what kind of magic our show features (general, comedy, mentalism, etc. Chemical experiments can be found in several of these kinds). Of course this step can be avoided by those who are interested in magic as a way to amaze friends and relatives, and therefore assume they have to be themselves during their performances. A word of advice for this category of amateurs: be yourself, but the best version of ‘you’ you can conceive, that is, create a character that exudes some kind of charm and has an aura around it, to enhance what you are doing and give an extra boost to your magic.
For everybody, of course, the rule is not to overdo it and to stick to what you are doing with consistency (very important) and modesty.
Creating the presentation of a magic trick, be it great or small, is based primarily on a series of key points which we will look at step by step. Of course, with practice and experience you will find that there are exceptions and special situations that have no written rules or advice; in those cases, the choice will only be yours, dictated by your experience and, above all, by your heart. But in general, the information you find below will be useful: it is a mix of what I have found here and there in various specific books and part of my personal experience.
Of course, some of the points are addressed mainly to those who intend to perform in public professionally or semi-professionally. However, these tips are useful even for those who are taking up magic simply as a hobby.
Once you understand the importance of presentation in a magic show, whether this takes place in a large theater or in your home, a question arises: what exactly are we talking about?
The spoken part of the presentation is the set of everything we say during a show or a single trick, introducing the latter. Basically, it is what, in specialized jargon, is called patter.
The patter is very important because, with the exception of the tricks we carry out with a musical background, our voice is the real soundtrack of the show. After all, while the magic trick holds the eyes and mind of our audience, what we say must hold their ears and heart.
First of all we should bear in mind that a good presentation – usually a storyline to accompany the trick – is never the result of improvisation on stage. However, it is also not the fruit memorizing pages of catch-phrases.
As in most cases, the best course of action is to go for a happy medium: jot down ideas and a list of things to say but keep it note-like. Also, write down the jokes or catch-phrases you plan on using in your presentation, then study these sheets (even by heart) until they become part of your own personality.
On stage, then, you will not repeat what you have studied like a parrot but rather say it in your own words, wandering off sometimes but following the guideline you prepared beforehand.
Here are some key points:
A) The patter must never be totally improvised. The risk if you do is to come up with nonsense or unhappy phrases or, worse, to not say anything at all, turning your show into something flat.
B) The patter must never be totally studied by heart. If you learn it by heart you will end up reciting it to your audience with little feeling, and the jokes would turn out cold and impersonal, not obtaining the effect you were hoping for (indeed, the opposite might happen) and making no impression on your public.
C) The presentation of the patter must be carried out showing your personality (or that of the character you play on stage) so that it looks improvised but follows the guidelines that you have drawn (and written) and studied in detail.
Every artist should aim for an original text, written either by himself or by others for him, and possibly protected by copyright. However, only great professionals can usually afford it, especially comedians who need true-and –tested jokes and sketches so as to keep the audience laughing.
However, even amateur magicians and beginners can slowly create their own presentation that will have to be, show after show, tested on the audience.
I'm definitely not the right person to hold a theater course, nor is this the right place. Certainly taking diction and acting classes would not be a bad idea for anyone who wants to seriously embark on the magician path as these will provide useful tips and advice to anyone who wants to be on a stage.
But while this might not be the right place for an acting course, we cannot fail to acknowledge that acting is the soul of the presentation phase, and even the great French illusionist Robert-Houdin would agree with me as he was the one who defined the magician as "an actor who plays the part of the wizard". And that is true: however much our character looks like us, the person on stage is never our real, everyday self.
Also, you need to remember that a good speech will only have the desired effect if we you recite it to the best of your abilities, highlighting the important parts with hand gestures and facial expressions (very important!). If you choose to be comedic magicians, then you will have to train to showcase every joke at its best, with perfect timing and use of accents.
Furthermore, with the help of a mirror try to make as many expressions with your face as possible, as if you were a mime, as you need to communicate with your body as well as with your voice, and to do this you need a constant workout and to be accustomed to using slow-motion movements and suitable expressions.
As far as speaking is concerned, it is important to make it as clear as possible for everyone so avoid inflections and, above all, dialectical expressions (unless they become a feature of your character), and get used to keeping a warm tone of voice.
Finally, it is important to remember that too much seriousness never works well, not even for a classic magician. At home, record your voice and listen to the audio in an objective way to find and, at a later stage, improve your defective diction.
Involving the audience
Part of the presentation is also involving the audience in our show or magic trick, especially if you are performing non-dangerous experiments like those you will find in these pages. Also, when your show lasts an hour or more, you definitely need to include tricks in which you can involve your audience so as to hold their attention. In fact, when a spectator is called to help the magician, the audience’s attention grows automatically, probably due to that sadistic human pleasure of seeing people in distress.
However, keep in mind that at that moment you are the one in control of the situation and therefore you have to pay attention to your behavior so as not to offend your guest. After all, a magician is a creator of illusions and as such is recognized, and must never lack respect to even one member of his audience, who is there to have fun and be amazed.
So remember that the best thing you can (and must) do is to try as much as possible to put the audience member you have invited on stage at ease, giving them a smile and encouraging others to clap for them. Be friendly and, whatever he or she has to do, make sure they do it nicely and can go back to his or her seat proudly, enjoying an applause from everybody else.
Your character too will benefit from it, and you will find that when you have to call someone on stage again, there will be eager volunteers instead of a frightened audience before you.
During a magic show, it is very important to consider the order of the tricks so that the latter are performed following a logical order. This also applies to your chemical magic show as well or to a chemical tricks routine in your show.
I believe that deciding the order is part of the presentation as the end result of a magic show depends a lot on how you structure it considering the tricks it features.
First of all, we need to distinguish two types of shows: the one that lasts over an hour and the one that lasts between ten and fifteen minutes. In the latter case there will be fewer tricks but nonetheless you still have to order them logically and consequentially (coherence is a fundamental feature of this art).
Some classic manuals suggest a show should start with a great trick, followed by a smaller one and so on, showing ever-more amazing tricks and culminating with one that will take your audience’s breath away.
I partially agree with this structure yet I don’t consider it set in stone as the circumstances are always different. Furthermore, every artist sets up an order according to their specific personal needs. Let's say, for example, that you are called to perform at a venue where you have to start at 9.30 pm but know that the bulk of the audience will arrive at 10.30. It is clear that in this case the first part of the show will be deliberately the 'weakest', leaving the best tricks for the time when you know you will have a greater audience.
It is also a good idea to put together all those tricks that have tools in common so as not to change rhythm too often, but rather to allow the show to flow as smoothly as possible. Finally, it is important to time the duration of each trick in order not to bore the audience or puzzle it, losing the attention because of too great a speed.
Before talking about the relationships between chemistry and the world of magicians let’s deal with a topic that automatically emerges when it comes to chemistry and magic: alchemy.
We will start with this because, actually, alchemy has nothing to do with the things we'll talk about in this book, having no relation to prestidigitation and fewer links with chemistry than one would think.
Alchemy was (and perhaps still is) a sort of philosophy whose main purpose was aspiring to the purity of the spirit and the human soul through a series of ritual passages. The metaphor of this was the transformation of faulty metal into gold, a symbol of perfection: a process that some alchemists tried to carry out not only metaphorically.
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