Historian Dana Rovang Explores the Odd Partnership of Science and Magic

Christopher Weber

It was a scene worthy of J.K. Rowling. A young American student, Dana Rovang, walked nervously down a London alley and knocked on a door marked in astrological signs. It opened. Rovang entered and disappeared down a spiral staircase.

That mysterious door, as well as the treasures behind it, belonged to the Magic Circle, one of the semi-secret societies dedicated to the history and lore of magicians. Rovang, then a University of Chicago Ph.D. candidate in the history and philosophy of science, was there to plumb the Magic Circle’s archives for occult knowledge normally off limits for scholars.

These days, magic is considered a form of anti-science, the foe of the clear, demonstrable, openly explained “tricks” known as experiments. But in science’s infancy in the 1700s, it was a prime tool of magicians, a means of generating cutting-edge illusions. And magicians were proselytizers for this emerging field.

London was ground zero for this odd partnership, and so it was only natural that Rovang went there to trace its origins. Her first inklings of this blurring of the lines between science and showmanship came from reading about Michael Farraday’s demonstrations of electricity at the Royal Institution. “He was putting on these spectacular shows in order to garner public interest in science,” Rovang explains. “I thought to myself, ‘This is magic. He’s putting on a magic show.’”

In the Magic Circle archives, in 2011, she examined some of the earliest instructional texts on magic tricks going back to the sixteenth century. These outlined how magicians could use optics and engineering to achieve surprising results. The librarians at the Magic Circle also provided helpful guidance about an elusive London magician, Jonas, who flourished in the 1770s. Jonas did most of his tricks with cards and coins, but he was the first London magician to use phrases like “Mathematical and philosophical experiments” in his advertisements.

At the time, the Committee on the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science was part of the University’s Division of Humanities, but in 2005, it shifted to the Division of Social Sciences. Along with the Nicholson Center for British Studies, the Committee helped fund Rovang’s London trip, and another she made to Austin, Texas, to examine magicians’ manuscripts up to 300 years old, including ones in the personal library of Harry Houdini.

“Magicians are naturally historians,” says Rovang. “History is an extension of their craft. A lot of the tricks are very proprietary. Their intellectual property is the spin they put on their magic tricks. They have to know the lineage of a trick in order to make sure they’re doing something new.”

“I love the spirit of collaboration of working with magicians.”

That collaboration continues, even though Rovang recently graduated. A prominent Chicago magician, Jay Collen, read and edited some of her dissertation chapters. Rovang is currently turning portions of her dissertation into articles that may form the basis of a book. The article on the little-known Jonas will fill a significant void in the histories of London, science, and magic — literally. Rovang recently sent to London her “payment” for use of the Magic Circle archives: a bound copy of her dissertation, now deposited in the occulted stacks.