Magic Box

Errr… not really quite so magic, but what can you do? In the immortal words of Bob Dylan, there’s no success like failure.

My first impulse for this project was to use magnets to activate other magnets. For some reason, I have long been fascinated by magnetism, and the possibilities of relationships between permanent magnets and electromagnets. I suppose it has something to do with powerful invisible forces, and the possibility of setting up relationships that are reliable and predictable but unforeseeable to an audience.

It struck me that stage magic was a good context for playing around with this. I decided to build a very crude reed switch, activated by a “magic wand,” and use it to turn on an electromagnet that would then cause something to jump up, and sit back down when the switch was interrupted. But I found that the most robust magnets I could build with the resources at hand (after a couple nights of trying and a nastily burnt power supply) were woefully inadequate to the task of making anything move in an impressive way, so I abandoned that idea.

MagicWand MagicWandGuts

My next thought was to use fans to blow confetti around. Not quite the nice rhyme of using a magnet to set off a magnet, but still something that would look like a fun cheesy magic trick – stillness, then action, then stillness again. I also decided to enhance the effect by turning on “stage lights” along with the fans. So I picked up a couple of small 12V fans and a new power supply, and grabbed some rainbow mylar foil to cut into confetti.

I wired everything in a big cardboard box using this schematic:



using bright white LEDs I had lying around from earlier tinkerings. After a little trial and error and sparring with another very dodgy power supply, I got everything working!


Unfortunately for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me that my tiny fans might not be very powerful. So the lights turned on, but the little handful of confetti I put in to test it went nowhere. It was the dullest magic trick in human history.

Panicked, I searched around for anything else I might use to do something (anything!!), and found a small 6V DC motor. I wired it through a 5V current regulator (since I had already wired the LEDs to run off 12V, I needed to stick with that as the overall voltage of the circuit), built a “propeller” from camera tape folded laterally in half, mounted it on the bottom of an old paper coffee cup, and made a new and much more powerful fan.

But still it didn’t really do very much moving of the air in the box, and I realized my confetti idea wouldn’t fly, literally or figuratively. I did still have my rainbow mylar though, so I cut a strip of it, mounted it to the “fan,” pinned it to the back wall of the box, and used that as the “act.”

I will say that the switch itself worked beautifully. The failure I experienced was really mostly a failure of imagination – that I found it hard to abandon the ideas that weren’t working and come up with others that would be meaningful and yet achievable with what I had at hand. At the end of the day, I would have been better off taking a step back and looking at the possibilities, rather than chasing one thought to the exclusion of all others.


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