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Secret of the Marvelous Orange Tree
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, a French magician during the mid 1800s needs no introduction. He has influenced many other magicians since with his modern style of magic. One of his great acts was called “The Marvelous Orange Tree.”
The Act of Conjuring
Robert-Houdin took a handkerchief from one of the lady spectators and rolled it so that it looks like a ball. He then places it beside side by side on a table, an egg, a lemon and an orange.
He then made the handkerchief smaller and smaller, and appears to be passing through the egg. Picking up the egg, and instead of cracking it open, he did the same, by making it pass through the lemon, and the lemon into the orange.
The orange is pressed between his hands, making it smaller and smaller, giving the impression that it's reversing its age, and eventually disappears and turn into fine powder, which he poured into a silver vial. This vial is then mixed with alcohol and set to fire.
His assistant then brings him a small orange tree planted in a box, without blossom or fruit, but is filled with green leaves. The vial which now burns with blue flame is placed beneath it and the fumes caused the leaves to sprout out orange blossom in several places on the tree. Waving his wand, the flowers disappear and are now replaced with oranges, which he gave to the audience to prove that they were real. All oranges were given, except a single one at the top of the tree.
Waving his wand again, the orange on the tree now split open into 4 parts and reveals the borrowed handkerchief. Two mechanical butterflies flap their wings and grabbed the top corners of the handkerchief and unfold it as they rose into the air.
Those who have watched The Illusionist (2006) may have seen it, although it’s a more complex form and no magician by far have actually able to perform it. Although it misses some elements, an act closest and almost very similar was shown in BBC, performed by Paul Daniels, as seen here:
Amazing as it looks, a magic is nothing but a clever illusion. For this act of conjuring, the secret behind it all is automaton. By learning the art of mechanical figures from his father-in-law and after meeting several magicians (by accident) in a store who used mechanics to perform magic, Robert-Houdin learned many mechanical tricks and improved on them that eventually lead to the creation of the Marvelous Orange Tree.
As Pierre Mayer shows, this trick can be reproduced by a clever act of timely mechanical automation, which Robert-Houdin used to push the flowers, pull them back, open the leaves and push out the oranges, and eventually the fluttering butterfly.