The Smallest Marvel of IBM 2018 By Gary R. Brown

Participants in this year’s convention can attest to its many wonders, including informative lectures, amazing shows, engaging contests, and friendships formed and renewed. Perhaps the smallest marvel bestowed upon attendees came in the form of a gift from Jeff McBride and the good folks at McBride’s Magic & Mystery School: a spinning disk illusion, about the size of a half dollar and printed in black and white. This tiny wonder dates back more than a century, and has an interesting story to tell.
I uncovered the story while conducting some unrelated research for the Propelled Pasteboards throwing card blog .

It begins with a wonderful advertisement from The Sphinx published in 1908. In that ad, a Philadelphia firm called the M. Lewis Company exhorts magicians to purchase “the finest magicians’ advertisement ever known.” Hyperbole aside, M. Lewis was attempting to entice practitioners to acquire, at the cost of three dollars per thousand, blank-faced playing cards bearing an illusion-back design dubbed the “Phantom Base Ball Illusion” or, in the alternative, purchase the printing block for 75 cents. Even in 1908, the illusion was nothing new – M. Lewis dismissed competing claims by purported inventors by sarcastically suggesting that the true inventors were contemporaries of Cain and Abel. (The ad copy refers to these supposed inventors as “bugheads,” a term for which I can find no relevant definition.) In fact, the illusion may have its roots in the “color effect” discovered by Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801-1877), a German experimental psychologist who, along with his colleague, Johann Zollner, was later deceived by the shenanigans of slate medium Henry Slade.

Since the “Phantom Base Ball” ad appeared, to my knowledge, only once in a single magic magazine, and I had never seen such a card, my hopes for finding one seemed slim. However, my friend and co-blogger Gary Frank rushed to the rescue, searching his extensive holdings to produce a gorgeous exemplar.

It was a throwing card promoting Mark Bailey Rumsey (1869-1939), a Michigan-based Chautauqua magician billed as “Marque, The Man Who Raises The Deuce with the Deck.” As with many throwout cards, the vivid, intricate back design is of a far higher quality than the face.

While the exact origins of the Phantom Base Ball illusion remain unclear, one can certainly speak to its staying power. The illusion is one of many “rotating disk” artifices that were and remain popular ways to distort visual perception. Similar designs can often be found grafted onto spinning tops or yo-yos. The design appeared on the face of several other throwing cards, including one for Manfred Scholtyssek as well as another card for famed magician Topper Martyn (1923-2004). Manfred Scholtyssek (1927-2008), publisher of “Zauberkunst”, the magic magazine of the former GDR. The Martyn card has an aviator back which was likely produced by Haines House of Cards.
Some months ago, in an effort to promote the Propelled Pasteboards site, we decided to produce a throwing card of our own. After studying hundreds of card backs,we opted to

incorporate the “Phantom Base Ball” illusion into the design of our card, having determined that it was one of the most intriguing adornments available. In fact, I brought and distributed scores of them to Grand Rapids.
Having spent hours tracing the history of this item, you would think that I would know how it worked. In fact, I didn’t. My confusion stemmed from the instructions provided in the original M. Fields ad, which advised as follows:
“Hold page flat and give it a rapid rotary motion and see the Phantom Base Ball appear in the center of the disc.”

I interpreted these instructions to suggest – perhaps not unreasonably – that the disc was supposed to be rotated as though on an axle. As such, after we had the Propelled Pasteboard cards printed, I experimented with the disk, pushing a push pin through the center and spinning it rapidly. This effort made some interesting wagon-wheel type effects – causing the “spokes” to appear to spin in both directions. The small white ball in the center of the design seem to move in a curious manner, though I have to admit that I never saw a “Phantom Base Ball.”
Fast forward to the last day of the IBM 2018 Convention in Grand Rapids. Jeff McBride gave a star turn with his lecture, the theme of which was “performing the most with the least.”

He distributed a “McBride’s Magic & Mystery School” bookmark to every participant, prominently showcasing a beautifully printed spinning disk illusion. Jeff moved about the room, demonstrating how by moving the black and white in a circular fashion – not spinning it on an axis as I had always believed – a magical silver circle would seem to materialize and roll about the design. (You can try this yourself with the reproduction printed here – simply move the page in a circular motion until you see the silver disk). Concealing a quarter beneath the cardboard strip allows for an effective and powerful coin production, converting an optical illusion into a tangible form. (Tenyo’s beautiful Moonspinner paddle – which can cost around $100 – also uses this design to produce a coin in a startling manner.)
When Jeff showed me how to utilize the disk, I confessed that although the illusion adorns the card for my blog, I had no idea how it worked. A few minutes later, he summoned me to the stage. “So, Gary, to be clear, you’ve been carrying a card for months with this illusion on it?” McBride inquired with an impish grin, beginning his playful cross-examination of this writer. I answered in the affirmative.
“And until now,” he continued, “you had no idea how it worked?”
“Indeed,” I responded, sheepishly. The master teacher sent me back to my seat.
To be clear, there are two different effects from these designs. The original “Phantom Base Ball” illusion included embedded Roman numerals which, together with design elements, creates the illusion of a baseball with stitches. The later versions of the trick use Fechner’s color principle to create the illusion of a metallic silver disk from the black and white printing, which more readily lends itself to a coin production.
In sharing the rotating disc illusion, McBride revived a century-old idea from the annals of our art. This notion – of drawing upon magic history to craft its future – represented a recurring theme at the Convention. Steve Valentine gave a brilliant lecture in which he demonstrated and taught effects mined from old magic books and films – including a wonderful rendition of Gali Gali’s Coins Across routine. Pop Haydn regaled attendees with his unique presentation of magic classics like the Linking Rings and Color Changing Silks. And my lecture showcased effects inspired by those used by phony spiritualists 150 years ago to hornswaggle leading scientists – including Fechner, whose color principle underlies the spinning disk illusion. All of these offering are so old that they are new again.
So one of the principal takeaways from Grand Rapids is this: if you’d like to see magic’s future, you might want to gaze into its past.
Judge Brown gave the Endowment & Development Fund’s first Distinguished Lecture at the 2018 Convention. Entitled “Effects from the Fourth Dimension,” the lecture explored a number of effects used by slate medium Henry Slade to convince scientists of the existence of a Fourth Dimension. His lecture notes have been reprinted and may be obtained from the Tennessee Magic Emporium (email:

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