A profile of Teller, by way of theft.
Print - The Honor System - Esquire
One of the greatest inventors of magic can be found inside a brick bungalow on a quiet tree-lined street in Burbank, outside Los Angeles. His name is Jim Steinmeyer. He is fifty-three years old, with silver hair and a neatly trimmed beard. In his office behind his house, he works amid towering stacks of magic books and some very worn-out tricks: the cups and balls, the linking rings, a box used to hold the woman doomed to be cut in half. (Actually, he owns two of those.) He is the man who taught David Copperfield how to make the Statue of Liberty disappear. Steinmeyer has also invented more than one hundred other illusions, many of which have become industry staples. His most famous is Origami, which he devised for Doug Henning. Copperfield also performed Origami, wearing a puffy white shirt; so did Siegfried & Roy and the Pendragons. More than one hundred magicians have legally included Origami in their acts after buying it and its secrets from the builder Steinmeyer has authorized to build it. (That builder is not Bill Smith, but Smith does build a number of Steinmeyer's inventions, including the popular Windshear, in which the performer appears to climb through the blades of a spinning fan.) At least another thousand magicians have bought knockoffs built by a man in Indiana, and a guy in Sicily, and a team of reverse engineers in China.
"Things are just out of control," Smith says. "It's the world, and it's getting worse. There have always been thieves in magic, but thievery has never been so bad as it is now. The biggest shame is, guys like Jim — Jim is retreating. I'm sure he has tons of other good ideas, but he's not making them, because it's not worth it. He's writing books instead."
"Invention is all fuzzy, sloppy stuff," Steinmeyer says. "I have patents, and I have had patents that have expired. Everything has a limited lifetime. But when a person can't make a living by coming up with new material, that's when you have to wonder about the system. I would say that over the last few years, the last ten years, it's a net zero. I'm putting as much money into it as I'm getting out."
Steinmeyer is surrounded by so many pirates, he's almost given up fighting them off. Because some venerable tricks, like the Zig-Zag Girl, have become so commonplace — much to the likely despair of its late inventor, Robert Harbin — many magicians have convinced themselves that every trick is fair game so long as they're able to crack its code. Pursuing the Origami thieves alone would be more than "a full-time job," Steinmeyer says. While his patents have provided some theoretical protection, he has never actually sued one of his robbers, because he knows how consuming and costly that grim task could be. Court cases might also require the magician to reveal too much about his trick in public, making the very act of protecting magic one of the easiest ways to destroy it.
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