Credit: The Conjuror (oil on panel) (pre-restoration) by Bosch, Hieronymus (c.1450-1516)
©Musee d'Art et d'Histoire, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France/ Giraudon/ The Bridgeman Art Library
Nationality / copyright status: Netherlandish / out of copyright

The First Ever Recorded Magic Trick: The Cups and Balls

Magic has always fascinated people all over the world and throughout the ages. It provides a sense of wonder and mystery that entertains any culture. Among the myriad of tricks that magicians perform, the Cups and Balls stands out as one of the oldest and most intriguing. This simple yet mesmerizing illusion has captivated audiences for centuries, marking its place in the annals of magic history. But what makes the Cups and Balls trick so special?

The Origin of the Cups and Balls Trick

The Cups and Balls effect has very early historical roots. There is evidence that it was performed by magicians in ancient Egypt. The earliest known depiction was discovered in a tomb in Beni Hasan, dating back to 2,500 BC. This ancient fresco-style painting shows two men seemingly engaged in a Cups and Balls routine, indicating that this trick has been entertaining audiences for a few thousand years.


What the Trick Looks Like

At its core, this trick uses three identical-looking cups and a set of small balls that can be hidden under them. The cups are usually made of metal, wood, or plastic. The magician places the balls under and on top of the cups, shuffles them around, stacks the cups, and reveals the balls appearing in unexpected locations, often astonishing the audience. The balls seem to travel or jump from cup to cup, vanish, reappear, and even penetrate through the solid part of each cup. Advanced versions of the trick rely on sleight of hand and misdirection, crucial skills for any magician. However, simple versions of the illusion allow beginners to perform it without great skill. Over the years, magicians have added unique twists and variations, making the trick even more enchanting, entertaining, and complex.

History of the Cups and Balls

The Cups and Balls trick is not another illusion; it's the very bedrock upon which modern magic is built. Countless magicians throughout history have honed their craft using this deceptively simple trick as their starting point. It's the perfect training ground for developing crucial skills like sleight of hand and misdirection – skills that form the foundation of virtually every magical performance you've ever seen.

For centuries, magicians have been reinventing this classic, infusing it with fresh ideas and captivating storylines. That's why the trick remains as relevant and awe-inspiring today as it was thousands of years ago.


The discovery in the Beni Hasan tomb is concrete proof of magic's deep-rooted importance in one of the world's oldest civilizations. This shows us that magic wasn't just entertainment in ancient Egypt; it was an integral part of their culture, woven into the very fabric of their religious and social practices. The Cups and Balls trick likely played a pivotal role in these ancient rituals, bridging the gap between the mystical and the mundane.


 It's kind of a living piece of history, a testament to human ingenuity, and a crucial link in the chain of magical evolution. Its enduring popularity and influence are undeniable proof of its power to captivate and inspire, generation after generation.


When in Rome

The Cups and Balls also made its way into ancient Roman literature.  In one of his letters, the writer Seneca mentioned a performer who used cups and balls. This gives us a little glimpse into the trick's presence in Roman entertainment. Notable magicians of the time, such as Acetabularius, were known for their performances of this classic trick, showcasing its popularity across different civilizations. Seneca mentioned a performer who used cups and balls in one of his letters, providing a glimpse into the trick's presence in Roman entertainment. Notable magicians of the time, such as Acetabularius, were known for their adept performances of this classic trick, showcasing its popularity across different civilizations.

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Evolution Through the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, the Cups and Balls trick evolved even more and spread throughout Europe. Street performers and traveling entertainers popularized it, making it a common sight at fairs and public markets. During this time, it became more refined, with magicians developing new techniques to surprise their audiences with.


The Renaissance was a golden age for magic anyway, and this illusion flourished. There was a renewed interest in arts and sciences, so a wave of creativity and innovation in the world of magic had begun. Famous magicians like Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (who is considered the father of modern magic and also the man who inspired Harry Houdini), performed the Cups and Balls with new flair and sophistication.


The Modern Era of Magic

In contemporary magic shows, the Cups and Balls trick remains a favorite. Modern magicians like David Copperfield, the late Ricky Jay, Dai Vernon (aka “the Professor”) and Penn & Teller have incorporated the trick into their performances, adding modern twists and incorporating technology to enhance the illusion. Despite these advancements, the fundamental elements of the trick have remained unchanged - which is a testament to how timeless this trick is.

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Learning the Cups and Balls Trick


The Cups and Balls can be learned by anyone at any skill level.  Beginners can start with simple routines and basic moves that are almost self-working.  Then it's easy to gradually advance the routine by using more sleight-of-hand methods that make the trick even more astonishing.

But even the basic/beginner methods for this close-up illusion are quite amazing to watch and fun to learn. This is probably why the Cups and Balls is a staple item found in most magic kits for kids.

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  1. What is the oldest recorded magic trick? The oldest recorded magic trick is the Cups and Balls, with evidence dating back to ancient Egypt around 2,500 BCE.
  2. Who are some famous magicians known for performing the Cups and Balls? Notable magicians include Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin , Dai Vernon, Ricky Jay, David Copperfield, and Penn & Teller, all of whom have performed the Cups and Balls with great skill and innovation.
  3. What does the Cups and Balls trick Look Like? The trick involves placing balls under cups, shuffling them, and then revealing their unexpected locations.
  4. Can beginners learn the Cups and Balls trick? Yes, beginners can learn the trick by starting with basic routines and gradually advancing to more complex techniques. There are many resources available to help learn this classic trick.


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