The great spoon bending scam
Magical Moments (2): On learning from The Amazing Randi
In a previous article I told you how I abandoned my intention to become a university teacher of philosophy, and instead went on to become a science journalist for German TV. During this period I became part of a group called the Skeptical Inquirer, whose home page is well worth a visit.
One of the most memorable founding members was James (“The Amazing”) Randi, a stage magician who made it his life’s mission to challenge mystical, pseudoscientific claims. Following his activities and reading his books led me to the conclusion that in order to test paranormal phenomena we skeptics must not use physics professors or psychologists — they are particularly easy to fool. We must always use professional stage magicians. I implemented this as a guiding principal for the CSICOP’s German chapter.
Today I want to tell you about a special scam I learned about and discussed with Randi, on one of my early visits. The subject is spoon bending — which at the time was constantly in the news media, because a young street magician had used it to convince people he had paranormal, genuinely supernatural, powers. This person is very litigious, so I will not give you a name. But you probably know exactly whom I am talking about.
Well, at Randy’s house in New Jersey I got a full briefing on how to best bend cutlery. Randy showed me half a dozen methods, which I took back home with me to Germany, and became a hit at parties and social gatherings. Here are a couple for you to use (if spoon bending is still a thing).
One of the simplest methods involves nothing more that a little misdirection. It is easy to bend a cheap diner or dime store spoon, especially a teaspoon, with one hand — here is a nice instructional video by Jay Sankey. I used this method a dozen times, without a single failure.
The second method is used if the spoon is of higher quality and therefore more rigid (“How about this one, can you bend it?”). Using the usual misdirection and chatter you at some stage draw up your chair, move it a little closer to the table at which you are sitting. This is done while people are examining alternate cutlery or something. It is of course used to bend the tough, rigid spoon, using the side of the chair for leverage. Adjusting your chair is the most natural thing in the world — nobody notices the true purpose.
There are a number of other simple methods, but I am going to describe the most effective one I have used. This is how you proceed:
- Say you are at someone’s house, someone you want to prank. You go into the kitchen and check out the cutlery. Take a spoon, even quite a substantial one, and go into the bathroom.
- There you sit for ten minutes bending the spoon back and forth. You may have to do it a hundred times. At some stage you will feel the spoon getting soft, frangible, ready to break. At this point you stop the bending.
- Now comes the decisive thing for you to do: nothing! You simply return the spoon in the drawer, continue with the social activities of the visit, say goodbye and leave.
- A few days, or a week or a month later you visit the house again. Somehow in the first minutes the conversation turns to supernatural powers (you cleverly instigate this, with some short provocative remark). Then you say: “You know, I have been trying the spoon bending thing, and it actually works!” Send your host into the kitchen, which you have not entered, to fetch some spoons.
- The spoons are now on the table. Examine them casually, looking for one which has a very faint, just discernable line where you had bent it. If it is not amongst the spoons on the table, ask for more — or use one of the half-dozen other methods in your repertoire to bend one of them.
- If you do see the spoon which you previously bent back and forth until it was ready to break, point (casually) to it and ask your host to take it up and hold the middle between two fingers. Now you put your index fingers on both ends of the spoon and start moving them up and down, using very little force. The spoon will appear to become pliable, and at some stage it will snap in two. Everyone will swear this is magic.
The point of the trick is that you have softened a spoon and actually broken it, and that it was done with a spoon brought out of the kitchen and chosen by your host, a spoon you hadn’t touched before. Of course the deception is that you had actually done stuff on it — just not during this visit.
The spoon bending fad went on for a couple of years, during which there were periodic front cover reports in national news magazines telling readers how it was clear that some people had supernatural powers and could bend metal with their minds. Apparently you could too, as people had witnessed.
Here are a couple of videos explaining spoon bending. Both Randi and Michael Shermer are colleagues in the Skeptics Society — Michael is in fact the editor-in-chief of their excellent magazine that is simply called SKEPTIC.
One last story. Here again I will leave out names — who has time to get into legal battles with duplicitous psychics? It happened when they were all over the place, bamboozling talk show hosts by bending spoons. A friend of mine, a professional stage magician whom I’ll call Jim, would go on the same shows a week after the most prominent spoon-bender, and show people that he could do the bending much better, using simple stage magic deception.
On one occasion the talk show master, whom I will call David, suddenly asked Jim, who had been adeptly bending items of cutlery, whether he could bend a screwdriver, which he pulled out of his pocket. Jim was nonplussed, but said he would try. He took the screwdriver, held it up to the camera, gently stroked the middle with a finger — and the screwdriver bent!
I was not present at the talk show, but Jim showed me video. What had actually happened, after Dave challenged him, was that he had started collecting the cutlery on the table together and instructing a show assistant to take the spoons away — he did not need them any more. What was the purpose of this? Well, Jim was thinking — how could he pull the screwdriver bending off?
Then came the next stage: Jim and Dave were suddenly discussing the possibility that he might be using chemicals to bend spoons. Jim said he could prove that he wasn’t doing this by washing his hands. He went over to a small basin in the corner of the studio and elaborately soaped and washed his hands.
Here the point was that Jim had decided that the only way to bend the fairly heavy-duty screwdriver was to stick it into a faucet and pull at the handle. The suspicion that he might be using chemicals was not something Dave had brought up — it was Jim, who then pretended that he was washing his hands at the behest of Dave. He had concealed the screwdriver in his sleeve — stage and street magicians are very good at doing this — and while washing his hands had stuck it in the tap and bent it.
The rest was simple. “Okay, so where’s the screwdriver? Ah, there it is. Okay, I’m going to try to bend it with my mind…” And after a minute of glowering at the thing it started to bend downwards, right there in front of the camera. Of course it was pre-bent, and twisting it slowly (and imperceptibly) it dutifully bent. It is a simple technique you can see executed here with a nail.
I haven’t bent spoons in years, and miss the days when people swore I had supernatural abilities. Now I have two wonderfully curious grandchildren and should try spoon bending on them.