So you’re into sci fi? But what about sci fact? Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction…
Each month our very own Voyager Science Queen* will bring you interesting, quirky and downright bizarre tasty morsels from the world of science. And its all completely, totally, 100% true!
This is a story about a family that is too interesting NOT to share: the Maskelyne clan. It is claimed this is a branch of the family descended from Dr Nevil Maskelyne, the fifth English Astronomer Royal. I can’t find any proof, except that the grandfather, John Nevil Maskelyne, father, Nevil, and son, Jasper, were all brilliant and clever men and brains obviously ran in the family … and they all spelt Neville as ‘Nevil’, which would suggest it was a family name.
The first of this clan was John Nevil Maskelyne. He was the kind of gentleman whose brain was set on ‘high’ and didn’t have an off switch. I’ve picked him as our first mad scientist for the year, because he also contributed a metaphor to the English language, and wrote a very famous book. John was born in 1839, and started his working life as a watchmaker (what is it about watches that so fascinates inventors?) but he was also fascinated by stage magicians and spiritualists.
His break into show business came about in a most peculiar way. He was watching a pair of shysters, the Davenport Brothers, use a ‘spirit cabinet’ and he clicked onto how they engineered their sham. He publically announced he would duplicate the cabinet using no magical devices.So John Maskelyne and his friend, Mr George Cooke, successfully built their own version of the cabinet, exposing the Davenport brothers as the frauds they were.
From that point on, he became an inventor of stage illusions, put together an act of his own with Cooke as his partner, and they became a famous stage act. However, he also had solo successes; he also went on to write several successful books, including the bestselling Sharps and Flats: A Complete Revelation of the Secrets of Cheating at Games of Chance and Skill. He inventedthe public toilet door lock, which opened with the insertion of a coin, and so gave rise to the euphemism of ‘spending a penny’ when explaining your trip to the toilet. He also continued to investigate and expose frauds claiming supernatural powers. He was an active member of The Magic Circle and the first editor of their society magazine, The Magic Circular.
I don’t know how he found the time, but he managed to marry and raise a family. One of his sons was also a famous stage magician, inventor and writer, Nevil Maskelyne, born 1863. He was a bit of a scamp and the very first ‘hacker’. When Marconi was giving a public demonstration of his wireless telegraph, using Morse code, Nevil – who was also interested in the wireless – used his skills to disrupt the demonstration. Before the actual message was due to arrive the telegraph began to issue the word ‘rats’ over and over, and then proceeded with a rude limerick at Marconi’s expense, “There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily.” This was followed by more rude suggestions and some quotes from Shakespeare. As you might have guessed, Marconi was unimpressed with these doings, but Nevil Maskelyne felt that Marconi had taken an unfair advantage in taking out patents. However, his hacking did little other than embarrass Marconi, who went on to dominate the field.
His son, Jasper Maskelyne, was born in 1902. He was a stage magician, like his father and grandfather. However, the inventor mad-skills turned up in his genes too strongly to ignore. During WWII, he was supposedly using his skills as a master of illusion to create camouflage and techniques for subterfuge for the Allied Forces. After convincing officials of his skills, he was placed in the Royal Engineers Camouflage Corps and sent to Egypt.Jasper and his ‘Magic Gang’ were supposed to be able to do everything from making jeeps look like tanks up to and including hiding entire cities and the Suez Canal from the German Bombers.
Now, to me that sounds like something from an alternative history fiction book, but Jasper wasn’t the only person to plan and construct these diversions. Hollywood special effect men were also part of this sort of subterfuge for the war effort. However, some historians deny that such escapades ever took place. I prefer to think they did, and that magic was used to save lives.
Poor Jasper couldn’t get his career as a stage magician up and running after the war. The Maskelyne line of magicians died with him in Kenya in 1973, as I can’t find any evidence that he ever married or had children. But all three of the Maskelyne magicians made history, one way or the other.
Now, you have to admit, that was a family with style!
This Science Post is dedicated to Phillip Berrie, who provided me with an article on Nevil and Marconi and introduced me to this amazing family. Why don’t they teach this stuff in school?
*The Voyager Science Queen is also known as Lynne Lumsden Green- find out who she is in About Our Contributors!