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Harry Houdini's incredible book about home science experiments — free online!

Illustration for article titled Harry Houdinis incredible book about home science experiments — free online!

As any steampunk will gleefully tell you, the Victorian era was a period of incredible discovery, where scientific breakthroughs occurred at an astonishing rate. Which was the perfect environment for a book like Scientific Amusements to be published - a hodgepodge of science, illusion, party tricks, naturalism, and more under a single banner.

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Part of Harry Houdini's incredible collection of books about science and spiritualism, a copy of Scientific Amusements was left to the Library of Congress, and is now digitized and free for us to look through. Posted on the wonderful Public Domain Review, it's an incredibly wide-reaching book, that does very little to explain any of the science behind the amusements.

Parts of it are still classic science experiments to this day — after all, it begins with a discussion of mass and falling bodies. But some of the other sections are more like bar bets (page 7's Match Problem), party tricks (the useful to this day way of opening a wine bottle without a cork, page 25), and the sorts of optical illusions that are still found in children's science books.

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But for the really fun stuff, have a gander at "chemistry without a laboratory" for a tour of at-home science that'd be a lot harder to get away with in this day and age.

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DISCUSSION

Since you mentioned his many books on spiritualism it's worth noting that he was a debunker of spiritualism, not a supporter. Houdini (née Erik Weisz, 1874-1926) was devoted to his mother, and when she died he sought out mediums who claimed to be able to contact those in the spirit world. Spiritualism was very popular and widely accepted at the time and his initial approach to them was out of a genuine desire to contact the spirit of his mother. He quickly discerned that the mediums were all fakes and made an avocation of debunking them. Like today's James Randi, he offered a large cash prize to anyone who could demonstrate supernatural powers in a controlled environment; the prize went unclaimed.

As he lay dying from a stunt gone wrong he told his wife that he would make contact from the other side if he could. They exchanged code words to validate the contact, and his wife held séances each Halloween, finally ceasing in 1936 having never received any hint of his spirit's presence.