Nadis, Fred 1957-

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Nadis, Fred 1957-


Born 1957, in Chicago, IL. Education: University of Texas, Austin, Ph.D.


E-mail—[email protected]


University of California, Santa Barbara, lecturer in U.S. history; Doshisha University, Japan, visiting associate professor of American studies.


Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion in America, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 2005.


Writer and historian Fred Nadis is the author of Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion in America, a history of traveling inventors, magicians, and popular science lecturers from the antebellum period to the present. Nadis draws on correspondence, secondary literature, promotional materials, interviews and personal observation in developing his themes. His cast of characters includes men who were both showmen and scientists, such as Charles Came, a lecturer and "electric healer" of the 1840s whose performances reenforced the positive relationship between humans and the new technologies. Other showmen included electrical geniuses Thomas Alva Edison and Nikola Tesla, the inventor of alternating current (AC), who worked for a time under Edison. At world's fairs and other forums, they offered dazzling displays of electricity meant to both awe and educate audiences. All these showmen infused their demonstrations of electricity and other technologies with a mystical aura that could also be found in popular science magazines and in the contemporary performances of magicians and hypnotists whose magic was entirely illusory. Nadis writes of other performers, including mind readers and escape artists, such as Harry Houdini, as well as of modern demonstrators of New Age devices such as singing bowls and "life energy amplifiers," according to Alex Stone in Discover.

Throughout, Nadis demonstrates how the wonder of the magicians and hypnotists became integrated into social and cultural perceptions of their time. He shows "how magicians like Harry Houdini aligned themselves with the Progressives' project, offering a refurbished and more congenial version of the wonder show that ‘exalted human ingenuity and potential,’" noted Matthew Wittmann in the Historian. Wittmann, who felt the book would be of interest to scholars of science, religion, and popular culture, concluded by writing: "Nadis demonstrates that the often-stark opposition portrayed between science and religion in American life becomes much more complicated when viewed through the lens of wonder shows."

Nadis asserts that with the modernization of America, and the alienation that has resulted, these shows re-affirmed the importance of human spirituality. He also shows how, in spite of contemporary understanding of methods used in these shows and their relation to superstition and ignorance, magic continues to fascinate the public. Products that invoke wonder are commercially successful, and advertisers employ "magical" techniques in the promotion and advertising of their products and services. In many respects they are not very different from the showmen of an earlier era. A SciTech Book News reviewer wrote that with this volume, Nadis "creates a wonder show of his own."

Nadis told CA: "I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and our next-door neighbor was a writer and a historian. He wrote biographies; every day we'd hear him pecking away at his manual typewriter in his basement studio. This may not have made me a writer, but it added a sense of mystery to the process that I can still remember. I later became intrigued with writing when I realized it was a way of making ‘movies’ without film, a camera, or actors."



American Historical Review, April, 2006, Linda Simon, review of Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion in America, p. 468.

Choice, September, 2005, L.A. Hall, review of Wonder Shows, p. 121.

Discover, November, 2005, Alex Stone, review of Wonder Shows, p. 78.

Historian, fall, 2006, Matthew Wittmann, review of Wonder Shows, p. 592.

Science Education, January, 2006, Marcel C. LaFollette, review of Wonder Shows, p. 166.

SciTech Book News, June, 2005, review of Wonder Shows, p. 14.

Technology and Culture, April, 2006, David E. Nye, review of Wonder Shows, p. 421.