The Indian Rope Trick — mirrors, courtyards and the mid-air vanish

“So many stories have been told about this trick that I felt sure there must be some foundation for them, possibly a very simple trick, of which travellers had given exaggerated accounts.” John Nevil Maskelyne, English stage magician, 1912

I’ve been looking at accounts of the Indian Rope Trick — or Indian and Chinese Rope Trick — written from the 9th century (Śaṅkara) to the 18th century (Pu Songling).

Thanks to the clues they left us, I now have a reasonably simple explanation for the most astonishing moment in the trick — the seemingly impossible mid-air vanish.

Maskelyne got more than half the way to the solution in 1878, when he identified the concave mirror as a crucial piece of equipment.

But Maskelyne never developed that point — he never showed in detail how a concave mirror could be deployed to produce the astonishing described effects. Perhaps his cynicism got the better of his curiosity.

For whatever reason he missed a point which was not secret at all, but clearly stated in the 14th century by Ibn Battuta — the trick was done at night in a courtyard — an area open to the the sky but surrounded by serious walls.

Once we get this point, a lot of things start to fall into place. Or rather, a lot of things can be prevented from falling out of place. Here’s a diagram showing how…

Image for post
Image for post

And here’s how the equipment worked:

1. The concave mirror, unlike a flat mirror, can produce a visible image on a screen. The image can come from any well-lit object (including a human being) in line-of-sight to the mirror.

2. The light source needed to be bright, to make the effect as striking as possible. Presumably they used pyrotechnics (fireworks) which first appeared in China around the 9th century.

3. The screen could be any sort of white cloth, stretched on a kite-like framework.

4. The supporting web could be made of any strong light-weight material, e.g. silk.

5. The hidden chamber had to be big enough for the light source, a performer, and the concave mirror, and accessible from the platform above.

6. The platform could have a simple appearance, without curtains or an arch. Just a bit of scenery hiding the access to the hidden chamber. Of course there had to be a hole for the light beam from the hidden chamber to shine through.

7. The climbing rope was there for show, not for actual climbing, so it didn’t need to be heavy or sturdy. It could be held up by the same web which kept the screen in place.

With these devices, the audience could be shown an image of a performer at the top of the climbing rope, surrounded by night sky. An image which looked exactly like the actual performer they had just seen on the platform. A full-colour, active image, whose hands moved about like those of a real rope climber (in sync with the actual hand movements of the performer in the hidden chamber).

Because the figure at the top of the rope was only an image, making him vanish was a cinch. It was simply a matter of changing the angle between the performer in the hidden chamber and the mirror.

One problem… a screen image from a concave mirror is vertically inverted, i.e. upside down. The simplest solution is that the young acrobat in the hidden chamber actually performs upside down, in which case his vertically-inverted screen image is the right way up.

A more sophisticated solution is to use two mirrors, so as to turn the image the right way up again. This may have been the method used in the 17th century for the version of the trick described by Emperor Jahangir, where the “climbers” were a dog, a pig, a panther, a lion and a tiger.

It’s true that the audience would not see a complete climb, from the platform to the top of the rope. In fact, the performer would need to move downwards into the hidden chamber, while he was supposedly making his way upwards on the rope.

But that is the sort of potentially embarrassing moment that stage magicians deal with all the time.

As Pu Songling tells it, the boy who was told to climb the rope did not immediately do so, like a rope-climber at an athletic event hearing the starter pistol. Instead he baulked at the supposed danger of the climb, and his father had to talk him into it.

Which meant that spectators knew, in general terms, that there was going to be a climb, but did not know exactly when. Ideally, the boy would appear high on the rope when the spectators least expected him to be climbing, and they’d assume he performed a fast climb when they weren’t paying attention.

Why is it important that the trick was done in a courtyard rather than a hall?

In a hall, the equipment would work just the same, but the impact on the spectators would not be same. There’s a major difference between looking at a climber surrounded by night sky and looking at a climber surrounded by ceiling. And impressing an audience is what stage magic is all about.

On the other hand, performing it in a fully open area would be less feasible.

There is another obvious factor which would affect spectator impact: whether or not they were familiar with images on screens. That, I suggest, is the reason why performances of the full rope trick are so hard to find today.

Because on this topic, they’re the most relevant. John Nevil Maskelyne was a racist and a cynic, but he was also a brilliant illusionist (visual magician) working in a golden age of visual magic. He knew a lot about what could be done with mirrors.

The other writers I’ve mentioned — Śaṅkara, Ibn Battuta, Jahangir, Pu Songling—were also writing in a golden age of visual magic, judging by the effects they described. It’s easy to write off their statements as fable, travellers’ tales etc (as Maskelyne did when he was in cynical mode). Yet they left us detailed descriptions of a feasible magic trick.

I have looked at more recent writers too, including Peter Lamont who says the story of the rope trick began in 1890. I think his work suffers from the form of bias sometimes called “recentism”… For more discussion, and details about the sources, see my longer article The Indian and Chinese Rope Trick — Why it wasn’t as impossible as it looked.

  • The diagram is my own digital drawing, done with MS PowerPoint.

Someone who likes sharing factual information and fragments of the big picture

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