The scene was a street corner in London sometime in the 17th century. A skeptical crowd had gathered to see if the performer could deliver on his promise to pour whatever drink asked for, be it whisky, wine or beer, from the small barrel he held in his hands. And the conjurer delivered! Spectators approached, and each one was poured the drink they asked for. The trick, with a bottle instead of the barrel, would be repeated over the years by numerous magicians and came to be known as the “Inexhaustible Bottle.”
The construction of the original gimmicked barrel was first described in a pamphlet by an unknown author, published in 1635 with the title “Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain.” The principle behind the trick has been noted by anyone who ever sucked up a liquid with a straw and prevented it from escaping by placing a finger over the straw. As the top of the liquid drops slightly, it creates a vacuum above it, with the result that the air pressure on the bottom of the straw is greater than the pressure at the top and the liquid stays in place. Releasing the finger allows the liquid to be dispensed.
The gimmicked barrel had three separate chambers inside, each one equipped with a pipe that connected to the opening from where the liquid would be poured. Each chamber also had a small air hole, and placing fingers over two of these holes allowed liquid to be poured from the third chamber through its connecting pipe.
Later, when the barrel was replaced by bottles, the effect became even more spectacular, with even more beverages from which to choose. Like the barrel, these bottles had multiple chambers and multiple holes that could be covered with fingers. Audiences were truly amazed, with most spectators unaware of the science behind the effect. They were convinced that they had seen real magic! And performers were often reticent to burst that balloon because it heightened interest in their act.
Back then, just as today, there were scientifically-minded people who were concerned about the gullibility of the public. At a gathering of some distinguished Englishmen in 1749, the Duke of Montagu, who apparently had a history of being a practical joker, came up with a suggestion to demonstrate how some people would believe the unbelievable. “I will wager,” the Duke reportedly said, “that let a man advertise the most impossible thing in the world, he will find fools enough in London to fill a play house and pay handsomely for the privilege of being there.”
To prove his point, the Duke came up with what was to go down in history as “The Bottle Jumping Hoax.” Ads in newspapers advertised a performance that would take place on the 16th of January, 1749 at the New Theatre in Haymarket, in which a conjurer would jump into an ordinary wine bottle! The bottle would then be passed around for all to view that he was inside. As one might expect, the ad generated much excitement and when the appointed show time arrived the theatre was stuffed to the rafters. But there was a problem. The performer had not arrived.
As minutes passed, the crowd grew more and more restless. Soon, there was the stomping of feet and catcalls filled the air. When an announcement was made that ticket money would be refunded if the performer would not appear in fifteen minutes, the crowd went wild. Someone threw a lit candle on the stage and triggered a riot in which seats were ripped from the floor, curtains torn down and everything that could be carried from the theatre piled outside and burned in a giant bonfire. Miraculously there were no reports of injuries.
Why had the performer not appeared? One newspaper doubled down on demonstrating public gullibility by printing a story about how the “Bottle Conjurer” was on his way to the performance on the fateful evening, but met up with a gentleman who offered a tidy sum for a private view. The conjurer agreed, and jumped into the bottle, at which point the gentleman corked the bottle and made off with it. According to the article, the man later realized that so many people had been disappointed by not seeing the conjurer jump into the bottle, that he would, at a date to be announced in the paper, uncork the bottle and give people the pleasure of seeing the conjurer jump out of it.
Needless to say, there was no jumping into or out of any bottle. But the “Bottle Jumping Hoax” serves as an effective demonstration of the lack of critical thinking, and how people can be goaded into believing the unbelievable. How could anyone believe that a man could jump into a bottle? Yet many did. That proposition could not pass muster today (hopefully), but the internet is full of promises to magically cure cancer with a host of substances available in all sorts of bottles. There is no shortage of desperate people willing to jump into these bottles.