January 26, 2000

The Moving Compass Trick

(We had intended to show you two still-frames taken from the ABC-TV show, to accompany this article, but a lawyer with the network informed us that they are afraid they might get sued by Uri Geller if that were done; Mr. Geller is staying true to form. In the video frame showing Mr. Geller, he is seen leaning forward so that his upper body is about 15 inches from the compass, and his left hand is about two inches above it, as the compass pointer moves.)

Here's the promised explanation of the Moving Compass trick that I did last week on the popular ABC-TV program, "The View." After I performed this simple party trick, I was asked by the hosts to explain my modus operandi, but I declined to do so, asking that viewers think about the possibilities, and referring the curious to this web page. The well-known "psychic" Uri Geller, presently on a tour of the USA extolling his "healthy living" book, had demonstrated on that show how, when he and the hosts had commanded a compass pointer to deviate by saying "Move!" in a determined tone of voice, it had moved about three degrees! There was much astonishment at this fact.


The challenge made to me by "The View" was to duplicate, as part of my appearance on the show, Mr. Geller's demonstration. I told them that if they wanted me to do it by trickery, I could and would readily do so.

Quite a few who saw the program had the correct answer to how I made the pointer move, and they promptly communicated it to the JREF by e-mail, phone calls, and postal mail. I'd merely told the TV viewers and the studio audience that I had used a "hidden" piece of apparatus. Those who correctly solved the puzzle had either seen it before as a summer-camp stunt, or merely deduced what that "apparatus' was.

After all, a compass is a very simple mechanism that reacts to magnetic fields, and it is this function that makes it a useful tool for finding directions; the compass needle/pointer -- itself magnetized -- easily lines up with the natural magnetic "lines of force" of the Earth. But the terrestrial magnetic field is rather weak; the pointer must be carefully mounted on a pivot so that it rotates with very little friction. The Chinese, in the 12th century, discovered this device and first put it to use. They floated a piece of lodestone, a naturally-occurring magnetic mineral, on a piece of wood in a bowl of water with its "poles" horizontally opposite to one another so that it could rotate and line up with the Earth's poles. It is said that Marco Polo brought this wonderful and useful invention back from China to Italy, and thus to the rest of the world, though the principle was probably discovered independently in Europe, as well.
Mr. Geller doing his psychic demonstration

A magnetic compass must be shielded as much as possible from extraneous magnetic fields. Motors, relays, generators, or simply other magnets or magnetic materials, can all also cause the pointer to move, overpowering the Earth's magnetism. The case enclosing the device must of course be made of non-magnetic material such as brass, aluminum, special stainless-steel alloys, or plastic. Some compasses, such as the model that Mr. Geller used in his demonstration (he brought his own compass to the show), and the one that I used to do my trick, are filled with a "damping" liquid, so that any bit of magnetic material inadvertently and momentarily brought near them, will not easily cause fluctuations or incorrect readings.

However, a sufficiently strong magnet, or even a piece of non-magnetized iron brought near to even the best magnetic compass will cause it to move. Very strong and quite small ceramic magnets are now easily available. Therefore, any trickster who wanted to mimic the demonstration that Mr. Geller did -- and that he has done on countless occasions, all over the world -- would merely have to introduce a magnet, and it would then be impossible to differentiate between the demonstration done by Mr. Geller, and a simple trick done by a magician!

We are made to understand, by Mr. Geller himself and by his handlers, that when he does this feat, it is accomplished by some sort of divinely-granted power, a psychic ability that he has perfected through study and will power. On "The View," he specifically stated, "And this is not a trick. There's nothing on me, there's nothing under the table. It is an energy I believe we all have." [Note: as he said, "There's nothing on me," Geller indicated his tie, which had swung forward toward the compass at the exact second the pointer moved, as he leaned his whole body down toward the table.]

I take this occasion to clearly state that when I did it, it was done by means of a small concealed "rare earth" magnet which I brought near the compass to make it move. I used no special powers, no enchantments, no prayers, nor did I use such means when more than 50 years ago I did the stunt for the new campers who were in my charge at Camp Lagakelo, in the Canadian wilderness.

Another statement by Mr. Geller has me interested. He said, "Now, you can imagine, when I did this for scientists, it, it blows their minds!" The mixing of verb tenses is Mr. Geller's. I would very much like to be put in touch with any scientist, anywhere in the world, for whom Mr. Geller performed this wonder, and who was the least bit puzzled by it. I'll settle for that; I don't require a "blown mind," just a bit of puzzlement. Anyone care to identify any one of these scientists for me? Anyone or any one?
Randi doing the Moving Compass Trick

My trick method is not of my invention; it has been around for a long, long, time. It was written up in children's books well over a hundred years ago, under titles like, "Magical Experiments, or Science in Play," by Arthur Good, 1890. At least one prominent performer of the past who claimed to have psychic powers apparently used trickery to cause compass needles to deflect, thus casting doubt on his validity. This was Henry Slade (1840-1905), a famous "psychic" who was enthusiastically endorsed by very prominent scientists in Europe and England despite several exposures of his tricks, until a British conjuror, J. N. Maskelyne, took him to court in 1876. Slade was convicted of fraud, fled to the USA, and died in a sanatorium. An exposure of Slade doing the compass trick appeared in the Proceedings of the American Society for Psychical Research, volume 5, 1921. It reads, in part:

"[The investigator] also discovered, by using his handy little mirror [he had a small mirror in his lap, so as to see beneath the table], how Slade operated a `mysterious needle' which was supposed to move by spirit power. But every time it moved Slade's foot rose until it almost touched the under side of the table. Doubtless the needle was magnetized and there was iron in the make-up of the shoe. . . . [The investigator reported this and another of Slade's tricks, going to] prove yet more conclusively that the most celebrated [spiritualist] of his time was an all-round fraud."

(My reader may wonder why the investigator for the ASPR did not test the needle for magnetism or ask to see Slade's shoe. Reading the entire article in the Proceedings, we learn that Slade insisted upon certain persons being excluded from the demonstrations, and also limited the number of witnesses that he would allow to be present. Indeed, he firmly controlled how the tests were done, and would not perform under circumstances that were not to his liking. That has always been a major weapon of the tricksters. They call the shots, and insist upon doing things their way, or not at all.)

Glass tables, which are often used on TV sets, and/or a table so low that a foot could not be conveniently introduced beneath it, would necessitate the hiding of the magnet on the body of the performer of the trick, out of sight but at such a position that it could be brought closer to the compass -- which was how I did it.

A modern description of the Moving Compass trick, intended for use by those who do not have the genuine psychic powers to do it the "real" way, appears in one of the popular "Klutz" books, designed for persons of little talent and/or dexterity who nonetheless wish to do things like juggling or conjuring, for examples. One of Martin Gardner's books titled "Science Magic" shows the trick method, describing it thus under the heading "Psychokinesis?":

"For more than a century, psychic charlatans have demonstrated their ability to influence a compass needle by waving a hand over it and commanding it to move. Here's how you can do it.

"The secret is a strong magnet, concealed either in the tip of your shoe or strapped to your leg just above the knee. The compass is on a table where you sit. To influence the needle, raise your knee until it touches the table's underside near the compass, or lift your foot to bring the tip of your shoe under the compass.

"Another spot for the magnet is under your shirt collar. As you keep ordering the needle to move, perhaps squeezing a fist over the compass to concentrate psychic energy, bring your face closer and closer to the compass until the hidden magnet under your collar affects it."

Please note that Mr. Gardner's book is designated in its Library of Congress Catalog listing, as "A collection of tricks, stunts, and puzzles . . ."

Also please note that the above descriptions of a deceased person, and his deceptions, certainly does not allow anyone to assume that the same methods are used or were used by anyone else, nor can we establish that persons who claim psychic powers cannot actually do the compass-moving by supernatural means. We can only wonder. As I often wonder whether, when Marco Polo returned home to Italy, he perhaps widened the eyes of some of his admirers there by showing them how he could make a steel pointer move just by waving his hands over it, and firmly telling it, "Muoviti!"

As I've told Mr. Geller before, if he does these miracles by divine power, he's doin' it the hard way.....