Michael Lauck is a columnist for iTricks. His work appears on Mondays.

For at least 90 years there have been references to television in magic magazines.

Television has probably been the biggest venue for magic for all of our lives. Even before it was common, it was actually affecting the magic industry.

Not too long ago I stumbled across something George A. Jenness wrote in March, 1924 issue of The Magician Monthly. He was, believe it or not, already writing about television and how it may affect magicians. Not even five years after the first commercial radio stations had started broadcasting in the United States and only two and a half since the BBC began transmission, Jenness wrote “The lay press has already told us about Television. Another idea to which my attention has been drawn is that where it may be possible in the future to control movements by wireless. It may be possible to steer ships from the port by so-called wireless control.”

Ironically, Tesla had actually publicly demonstrated, and patented, a radio controlled boat in 1898, long before sound was transmitted via radio systems. Although Marconi was popularly credited with the invention of radio when Jenness wrote, the Supreme Court would eventually rule that the patents involved were held by Tesla and others. What really grabbed my attention, though, was that at a time when radio was in its infancy people, particularly magicians, were already looking ahead to television!

The history of television is really the subject of entire books (and usually rather boring technical books at that), but as Jenness wrote the press was already talking about television in the early 1920s. There had even been a few primitive demonstrations. By 1928, C.F. Jenkins in Maryland and publisher/radio station owner Hugo Gernsback were both making scheduled broadcasts and General Electric’s experimental station even presented a play over the air. In an era when radio and even electricity were relatively new developments and many had built their own radios, people were excitedly following the emergence of television in the newspapers and through magazines such as Popular Science and Gernsback’s many technical magazines. Magicians were no different, except they were already trying to incorporate the new field into their craft.

By the late 1920s the word “television” was being incorporated into the names of new effects such as Brema’s Television Mirror or the simply titled Television, which was published by H.R. Hulce in the June 1929 issue of Linking Ring. Both tricks are interesting today because they make reference to early television equipment that is no longer in use. Some early sets actually used mirrors to reflect the images they received, which was probably the source of Brema’s title. Hulce’s effect was a simple card teleportation that incorporated a fan with the blades replaced by a 12” disk with a spiral pattern of holes punched in it. This was an approximation of the disks used by mechanical television sets to break up the image stream (similar to the shutters used by film projectors). Jardine Ellis seems to have presented an effect called Television as early as 1925, but I am not sure of the details.

Of course, television was more than just a source for inspiration to magicians. If it really was perfected television would become an incredible new venue for performers. The December 1929 issue of The Magician Monthly, the British magazine edited by Will Goldston, simply announced in the column by Gee and Whiz that ““Hermalin” has been the first conjurer to give a demonstration for television,” promising more information soon. The next month the same column filled in a few details. The Magicians’ Club visited John Baird’s television studio in London to demonstrate magic over the air. Hermalin (a well known London magician also known as Robert Jackson) went first, performing with cards, coins and thimbles, followed by Ned Williams, Alex Gordon and J O’Neill Fisher. Maddeningly, the exact date is not mentioned but this does appear to be the first performance of magic on television. I will admit that it is possible that some other experimental station had already broadcast a magician, but it does not seem very likely.

Muddying the waters, though, was a mention by Dan Belman, writing from the UK, in his September 1930 Linking Ring column that television was now a regular part of the London Coliseum’s variety show. He wondered when a magician will perform on television, only to come back the next month mentioning that the June issue of The Sphinx has R.H. Simonds claiming the honor. Searching through the June issue (thanks, like so much of my research, to the wonderful library at AskAlexander.com) I did find, near the very end, a paragraph stating that Rollin H. Simonds believed himself to be the first to perform magic on television. The Northwestern student was part of a broadcast entitled “World’s Greatest Collegiate Circus.” The show was aired on W9XAO but on May 2 (presumably 1930), keeping Hermalin’s claim intact. Simonds may very well be the first magician on television in the United States.

Frank Chapman thought himself to be the first magician on American television thanks to a 1931 performance on W3XK, in the Washington DC area. It was published more than once that he was the first, but in the April 1940 Genii Chapman admitted that he believed he held the record for some time but later found out that the elusive Doc Nixon had actually performed on television six months before him. When and where this was, I have no idea. Given the timing, Nixon may have actually been broadcast before Simonds. Like so much about William “Doc” Jones, this may simply remain a mystery.

While all this was happening, though, television remained an inspiration for magicians. More and more effects inspired by the new technology appeared including Hardo’s Television Box, Annemann’s 30th Century Television and Dodson’s Television Force Card. The magazines also continued to report on television as an exciting new venue. Billboard pointed out that it would be perfect for magicians and a Linking Ring writer even lamented that Thurston was starting a radio show instead of waiting for television “so we can enjoy the Thurston Show while relaxing in our old arm-chair sitting at home.”

Television was so interesting to magicians that the August 1937 Linking Ring carried an article by John Van Gilder called Witnessing A Television Broadcast. In it Van Gilder details being invited to the home of Mr. and Mrs. C.W. Farrier to view one of NBC’s secret experimental television broadcasts. Farrier was actually working for NBC and had one of the 80 television sets secretly placed in homes within a 50 mile radius of New York City by the network. He described the television as being similar in size to a large console radio with a hinged portion on top. This opened to reveal a 7.5 by 11 inch mirror which reflected the image generated inside the cabinet. He reported that the picture was as clear as a movie theater and that the sound was actually better than radio! Television was even further along in England, which according to Van Gilder, boasted about 2,000 sets with the BBC making regular broadcasts.

Even as magicians were growing excited by the new medium, others were already sounding warnings that it would present new challenges. In the June 1938 issue of Goldston’s Magic Quarterly J. Sherlock and M. Warden penned an article called Television Is Here— You Cannot Shut Your Eyes To It. In it they warned “Sitting in their own homes, with the screen before them, the public will be at least fifty per cent. more in a position to criticise (sic) than in the setting of the theatre, concert or even the drawing-room, especially arranged for such an entertainment.” The SAM was also concerned about television, being sure to mention it in the anti-exposure section of the ethics guidelines adopted in 1939. They also made a deal about this time with not only the National Broadcasters Association (which was made up of 400 radio stations) but also NBC and GE executives to avoid broadcasting exposure, a move they felt would stop television exposures before they even got a chance to start.

After anticipating television for well over a decade, most people would have to wait at least another decade before having a set of their own. World War II forced the BBC to end its regular television broadcasts in the late 1930s and kept the technology from moving forward in the United States. When television finally did become commonplace it would fulfill all of the predictions, and warnings, magicians had been reading for over two decades.