John Nevil Maskelyne – Strange the things to be found, When wandering ‘round an English town.
The previous rhyming couplet is one of my few attempts at poetry during my writing career. Other attempts have been equally unsuccessful. Also, I did not take the photo. My wife did during a recent visit to Cheltenham. She thought the Blue Plaque would intrigue me and she was right. Along with horology, magic is one of my interests. If the two topics appear to be an odd couple consider this: magic is the creation of illusions often with apparent links to a spiritual world where the rules of our everyday physical existence do not apply. The development of the first mechanical clocks in Europe was the work of medieval monks who wanted to know the exact hour for their prayers – in other words, the right time to see to their spiritual needs. Often I have thought that the first chiming clocks with their mechanisms hidden behind dials must have appeared to many people as wondrous, magical devices. At least that is what I would like to believe.
I would also like to believe that John Nevil Maskelyne’s career jump from watchmaker to magician was not as big a rupture as you might think. While watching a show put one by the Davenport Brothers two American magicians in Cheltenham in 1865 that promised contact with the supernatural Maskelyne became suspicious. He realized that the Davenport’s were using mechanical devices hidden in a large cabinet and not contact with another plane of existence to pull off their tricks. With the help of a local cabinet builder Maskelyne constructed his own devices and stage a demonstration and proved the Davenport’s were frauds. Maskelyne’s switch to magic – he became one of the most famous practitioners of that craft was based on his knowledge of mechanics acquired as a watchmaker.
Among magicians, Maskelyne is also credited with developing versions of the levitation trick – which is accomplished with the aid of a mechanical device hidden from the view of the audience.
Such was Maskelyne’s fame that one of his three children also named Nevil Maskelyne became a magician, as did his son Jasper Maskelyne.
Maskelyne’s other claim to fame involves the invention of another mechanical device; the coin-operated door lock on public toilets. You just never know where an education in watchmaking will end.