Harry Houdini preparing to jump into the Harvard River (via Library of Congress)
We might think of intellectual property as a modern concept, but the politics surrounding ownership of innovations at the turn of the 20th century were an absolute bloodbath. With patent trolls like Thomas Edison and Charles Goodyear staking claims on the intellectual property of others — to the tune of tremendous profit and influence — it’s no wonder that protecting one’s inventions was top-of-mind for innovators of the day.
Since there was no process for patenting or copywriting magic tricks, famous illusionist Harry Houdini (neé Erik Weisz/Erich Weiss) found a way to perform a little legal sleight of hand to protect his professional trickery. In 1911, he developed a famous act, titled “The Chinese Water Torture Cell,” comprised of the magician’s feet being locked in stocks before he is suspended in mid-air from his ankles with a restraint brace, and then lowered into a glass tank overflowing with water. The restraint is locked to the top of the cell.