Thinking Inside the Bottle - The life and legacy of Harry Eng
It is impossible (excuse the pun) to read about impossible bottles without coming across one name time and time again: Harry Eng.
Harry is widely regarded as the modern master of the art form, leaving behind an astonishing legacy that has delighted and baffled people in equal measure the world over.
There are many pictures of Harry's impossible bottles online (continue reading to see some examples). However, aside from a few basic facts, there is a frustrating lack of information about the man himself.
This is my effort to remedy that.
I never met Harry. He died when I was only 13 years old. He also lived on a different continent. However, over the past few months I have tried to find out everything I can about him.
During this time I have been lucky enough to speak to people who knew Harry personally. They were all kind enough to share their personal memories (and sometimes photographs) of Harry, and without them this article would not have been possible. You will find their details in the acknowledgements section at the end.
A man of many talents
Harry Eng was born in Los Angeles, California in 1932. The details of his early life are somewhat uncertain. However, we do know that he was given up for adoption when he was very young, and had no intimate knowledge of his birth parents. Even Harry himself did not know his date of birth for certain.
Later in life Harry settled in La Mesa, San Diego where he lived for more than 30 years, marrying his wife Betty, with whom he had two children - Greg and Diana.
Harry was a man with an eclectic list of interests, which is exhausting simply to read:
Despite how varied these pursuits were, for Harry they were simply tools to encourage people to do one simple thing: think. But not just to think like most normal people do. Harry wanted people to break free of the normal frameworks of cognitive thought. These were too restrictive for him. Harry was primarily an educator, and wanted people to think in unusual ways.
This passion for thinking meshed perfectly with his day-to-day job as a public school maths teacher, where his unconventional teaching techniques would yield astonishing results. Magician Paul Harris was a close personal friend, and recalls:
"Harry was an amazing teacher. He would take below-average kids and make them the stars of the school every single time. He had an ability to get across very complex ideas in a very simple way. Every parent wanted their kid in Harry's class.”
Gordon Tait was a friend in London with whom Harry sometimes stayed. He describes Harry as a man with a "very pure sense of being", and recalls a time where he was teaching maths to a class of young children. The children were paired up and given a cake to divide into two. Harry told his students (before they cut the cake in half) to make sure that their partner would get the bigger half. As Tait describes it, this simple activity was a "powerful philosophical act", and demonstrated how Harry was able to merge "maths, motor skills, kindness, thoughtfulness and justice" in such a unique way.
Harry’s passion for teaching also made its way into the family home, sometimes in humorous ways. For example, when his daughter Diana was dating, potential suitors would be required to pass a series of tests and riddles to prove their suitability!
Weight-lifters train for strength.
Runners train for endurance.
Gymnasts train for balance.
But Harry trained his brain. For him, the human brain was a great untapped resource that could be exercised just like anything else.
Lance Pierce met Harry twice in the mid 90s. He recalls Harry saying:
“I love to exercise my brain. The power of our lives, the very force by which we live, is in our minds. The healthier we are up there, and the better we can use our brains, the better we are.”
Harry had a gift for inventing simple solutions to everyday problems. For example, how does one keep a half-eaten loaf of bread fresh, without recourse to bags, ties or bread bins? Harry had a solution, which Gordon Tait affectionately calls the 'Eng bread knot'. Simply give the empty part of the bread bag a quarter turn, and then fold it back over the uneaten loaf. "Whenever I make my morning toast", says Tait, "I think of Harry".
Putting normal, everyday objects inside bottles would be the ultimate expression of this passion for thinking. But before Harry embarked on that path, it manifested itself in other ways...
Magic, but not as we know it
Harry Eng had a life-long interest in magic. In the late 1970s he was actively involved in the San Diego magic scene, even acting as the president of a local International Brotherhood of Magicians ring.
Harry was particularly fond of rope magic, and was especially renowned for mastering the tricky one-handed knot.
However, his favourite kind of magic was not stage, sleight-of-hand, mentalism, or prop magic. It was to use the capacity of the human brain for thought. For example, magician and inventor Mark Setteducati writes:
"One of Harry's passions was his feats of memory which included books he made that contained 10,000 numbers or thousands of words that he had memorised. He would have you turn to any page and he would recite the contents without looking."
Lance Pierce encountered the same amazing feat:
"It seemed like a dream magic trick: No duplicate pages, no cue cards, no sleights, no moves, no skill necessary. Just hours and hours and hours of effort and work to train your mind."
Pierce also recalls how Harry was able to effortlessly write his name upside down, back to front, and simultaneously with both hands. This would be difficult enough to accomplish using the English alphabet, but Harry took it a step further - he did it using complex Chinese pictographs.
It is no wonder that Pierce is able to proclaim Harry Eng as "probably the most magical man I have ever met".
A change of focus
Harry had long suffered with ill health. Not only did he have diabetes, but for much of his adult life he suffered severe arthritis in his hands (a fact that makes his work even more astounding). Around 1985 he had a serious heart attack, and doctors told him that he had no more than a year to live. According to some accounts, this was the time that he started making impossible bottles. Others say that he was making them long before this.
It doesn't matter either way. The fact is...it was a perfect union. Harry's obsession with logical thought, coupled with his practical skills, allowed him to channel his prodigious talents into an art form that would not only challenge himself, but baffle countless others in the process.
Harry was often asked how he made his impossible bottles, to which he always replied "I think my way into the bottle".
In fact, impossible bottles became Harry's own "brand" of magic. Ships in bottles have been around for hundreds of years, but Harry was really the first person to put other objects into bottles as an art form in itself.
And it was a thoroughly unique brand of magic, too. Jason England, writing in Cosmos, incisively remarks:
"Eng bottles are the closest thing to a perpetual magic trick I have seen."
Most magical effects are, by necessity, temporary. A card trick must be repeated for every new audience. A stage illusion must be carefully reset for each performance. But an impossible bottle is in a whole other category. It is created just once, and then simply exists, baffling all who set eyes upon it. Ordinary objects, juxtaposed in the most extraordinary way.
"Even if Harry had never made a single bottle, he would still be one of the most remarkable men I have known."
However, thankfully Harry made far more than a "single bottle". In fact, by his own estimation, he made around 600 of them - a mind-boggling output. And the variety in his work is equally surprising. Many impossible bottle artists today tend to focus on playing cards in a bottle (personally I like to throw in a padlock or steel bolt too). But Harry would not be so restricted. The sheer variety of objects he put in bottles is mind-boggling:
Legend has it that he could even bottle a lightbulb, and although (to my knowledge) there is no photographic evidence of this, it is hardly difficult to believe.
The trademark item in a Harry Eng impossible bottle is a decorative knot. Sometimes they are big, sometimes small, but there is almost always a knot in the bottle, and always too large to fit through the bottle's neck.
There comes a point where words can no longer do justice to Harry's genius. The only way to truly appreciate his legacy is to view his impossible bottles. But not just to view them. To stare, slack-jawed, and ask how did he do THAT?
The following images are reproduced by kind permission of The Puzzle Museum, which has the rather enviable honour of owning thirteen original Harry Eng impossible bottles. Here are just a few of them:
Harry frequently made his bottles for friends and colleagues, as was the case with Mark Setteducati, who also has quite the collection:
Nearly 25 years after his death in 1996, Harry's impossible bottles are highly sought-after by collectors, frequently fetching hundreds of dollars at auction. But even during his life they were highly desirable, selling out whenever he attended magic conventions. And if they weren't being sold, they were being stolen, as he recounted in the story of a California museum at which he was exhibiting. Thieves broke in overnight and stole the whole lot.
There is a striking warmth in the voices of those who recall their memories of Harry. But present, too, is an unmistakeable hint of sadness. After all, he was a man who died at the relatively tender age of 64. If he had lived longer, who knows how many other marvellous impossible bottles he might have created, and how much further the world would have been enriched by his passion for thinking?
From all of my conversations with those who knew Harry, a consistent picture emerges. Here was a man who possessed extraordinary talents, yet remained humble and gracious. A man who never looked down on others and made them feel inferior, but simply wanted to share his love for the human mind.
So it only seems fitting to conclude with this astonishing creation - a one gallon bottle (or demi-john as they are known in the UK) containing a 14cm-wide plank of wood and a padlock.
The Puzzle Museum writes:
"Our venerable curator has gone nearly blind with a magnifying glass but has failed to find any sign of breaks or glue in this plank."
However, look carefully at the word engraved on the wooden plank: THINK.
This was Harry's favourite word, and in fact the name of his educational consultancy business. It is hard to choose a word more befitting of his legacy. It invites us to view things differently. To use our brains in ways that we might not have thought possible. And above all...
...to think our way inside the bottle.
This article would not have been possible without the help of the following people:
Mark Setteducati, who not only shared many memories and photographs of Harry, but also put me in touch with many of the people below.
Paul Harris, whose short piece on "Eng's Bottles" in the Art of Astonishment series was the catalyst for my own journey in impossible bottles (and incidentally the very first place that Harry's work was published).
James Dalgety, curator of The Puzzle Museum, who kindly provided permission to reproduce photographs and text from his website.
Gordon Tait, who shared his memories of Harry in a London coffee shop on a rainy day. Gordon claims to have an old VHS cassette tape of Harry appearing on a very early edition of the Jonathan Ross show. Watch this space...
Tim Rowett of Grand Illusions, who shared memories of time spent with Harry in London, and has a video showcasing some of Harry's bottles.