Time was when we still thought about physical work in terms of manpower, that which workers could actually accomplish with the strength of their muscles. As the steam engine swept across the world during the 19th century, though, that notion of power became hard to sustain. In 1911, a Scientific American writer calculated that the British Isles' 45 million people had access to seven million horsepower, or based on a Bhutanese sherpa's carrying capacity, 175 million manpower.
In the last decades of the 19th century, the legend of John Henry had made the price of competition against our machines clear: you could beat a steam hammer in a race, perhaps, but it would kill you.
But there had to be another way. If man wasn't stronger than his creations, perhaps he was smarter, or at least more clever. And that's where Harry Houdini, born Erik Weisz, made his mark on the American imagination. He might not have been able to break his iron chains, but he could shed them. We celebrate him today because it would be his 137th birthday (as noted by Google's Doodle) -- and because he is awesome.
As Men and Masculinities: A Social, Cultural, and Historical Encyclopedia points out, Houdini became "one of the iconic masculine figures of early twentieth-century popular culture." But what a strange masculinity! Almost impossibly muscular, Houdini's trick was to be chained up and restrained -- made weak -- only to heroically reemerge. He was less a conquering prince than an escaped slave, a relationship that commentators like Buckminster Fuller occasionally made explicit when they referred to our energy producing machines like this: "The U.S. has 54 percent of the energy slaves, an army of 20,000,000,000." The very machines that created the chains and handcuffs by which Houdini was bound were powered by the "energy slaves" that had freed him up from the manual labor that had previously been required to sustain society. All this to say: we love Houdini not just because he was an excellent escape artist, but also because his relationship to power makes us wonder about our own.
Or as Men and Masculinities puts it in more academic terms:
It may be that for his audience, the key metaphor was that of the "ordinary man" confronting and heroically overcoming, not only authority figures such as policemen and jailers, but the whole repressive apparatus and iconography of early twentieth-century Western industrial society.