Smoke and mirrors

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Projecting an image onto smoke with a mirror, from Nouvelles récréations physiques et mathématiques (1770)

Smoke and mirrors is a classic technique in magical illusions that makes an entity appear to hover in empty space. It was documented as early as 1770 and spread widely after its use by the charlatan Johann Georg Schröpfer, who claimed the apparitions to be conjured spirits. It subsequently became a fixture of 19th-century phantasmagoria shows. The illusion relies on a hidden projector (known then as a magic lantern) the beam of which reflects off a mirror into a cloud of smoke, which in turn scatters the beam to create an image.

The phrase "smoke and mirrors" has entered common English use to refer to any proposal that, when examined closely, proves to be an illusion.


The term “smoke and mirrors” etymologically derives from the German word smēocan (‘emit smoke’) and Latin word mirare (‘look at’).

Johann Georg Schröpfer[edit]

Johann Georg Schröpfer coined the concept of smoke and mirrors as a common feature of stage magic and 19th-century phantasmagoria shows. The illusion technique traditionally uses a magic lantern or image projector and a light source to cast onto a conjured smoke in thin air to portray illusions of the floatation, existence and disappearance of objects.

James Breslin[edit]

The earliest known use of the idiom came from the biography How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes from an Impeachment Summer, published in 1975. It was written by American political journalist James Breslin, who accounted first-hand, the Watergate political scandal in Washington. Breslin often alludes the impeachment political sphere to semantic images of “blue smoke and mirrors” [1], where magicians use smoke and mirrors to accomplish illusions such as making objects misleadingly disappear. Towards the end of the 20th century, the term became commonly used to describe the complex system of political culture and affairs in the media and publications across the world. The application of the idiom “smoke and mirrors” in politics also led to the book Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, published by journalist Dan Baum, and its popularity in modern media articles.


Shadow Puppets[edit]

The act of image creation and image projection traces back to primitive shadow puppets, notably in China and India as an ancient form of storytelling and entertainment. This concept gave rise to Plato's renowned narrative, the Allegory of the Cave.

Magic Lantern[edit]

Smoke and mirrors is a typical feature of modern stage magic, although can be described as the power of suggestion and illusion in magic in itself more broadly. Modern stage magic optical projectors such as the precursor magic lantern to make it appear that an object is hovering in empty space. This is performed by projecting an image onto a slanted placed mirror and onto a clouding medium such as theatrical smoke and fog to cast a shadow in thin lit air.

In the late 18th Century several producers and directors used the magic lantern to produce horror shows, called 'phantasmagoria' shows to create horrific images such as apparitions.

Psychology and behavioural neuroscience[edit]

Smoke and mirrors exploits errors in human perception and the psychology of misdirection to create compelling illusions for large audiences typically within a theatre of auditorium. Some of the early pioneers in psychology (e.g. Binet, Triplett) in the 1800s and 1900s who recognised the association between the applications of psychology in magic.

See also[edit]


  1. Vermeir, Koen (2005). "The Magic of the Magic Lantern (1660-1700): On Analogical Demonstration and the Visualization of the Invisible" (PDF). The British Journal for the History of Science. 38 (2): 127–159. doi:10.1017/S0007087405006709. JSTOR 4028694.
  2. "Magic and the Brain: Teller Reveals the Neuroscience of Illusion". Wired. ISSN 1059-1028. Retrieved 2020-11-24.

Further reading[edit]