The art of the impossible

Some puzzles appear to bend the rules of the natural world. The best simply refuse to give up the secrets of their creation, writes Jason England.

An Eng bottle from the author's own collection.

Within the taxonomy of puzzles, there is an entire sub-category known as “impossible objects” – things that appear to violate some natural law. If properly made, the object can often be examined without revealing exactly how it was created.

One of the modern masters of this art was Harry Eng. Born in 1931, Harry was an educator, magician, mathematician and science aficionado who spent his life trying to encourage his students, friends and family to think in unusual ways. His most famous creation was his series of impossible bottles. These are normal bottles that contain objects that are clearly too large to fit. They are not unlike the old “ship in a bottle” models, but are much more difficult to create. A “ship in a bottle” isn’t typically considered an impossible object as it’s easy to deduce that the ship was largely assembled outside the bottle, slipped inside the mouth, and then the masts and sails were attached inside the bottle using long tweezers. It may be very difficult, but it clearly isn’t impossible.

But Harry Eng put all sorts of impossible things into bottles: coins, men’s shoes, completely intact light bulbs, tennis balls, golf balls, and American baseballs. All of the items were placed inside via the very small mouth of the bottle, which was not altered nor blown around the objects. To Harry, that would be doing things the hard way!

Being a magician, some of his favourite things to put inside his bottles were decks of cards inside the closed box. The cards were removed from the box, which was then gently bent and placed inside the bottle. Once there, the box was pried open and the cards placed inside one at a time. The box was then closed and sometimes even resealed. But before you conclude there is no mystery here, consider that Harry often drilled a hole through the cards and threaded a nut and bolt through the entire deck! Most often he accomplished this in bottles where there was barely any room to manoeuvre the bolt or the nut.

‘Eng bottles are the closest thing to a perpetual magic trick I have seen’

By his own estimates, Harry made more than 600 of these bottles in his lifetime. Today, they are highly prized by collectors and rarely come up for sale. When they do, it isn’t unusual for them to sell for a $1,000 or more. My own collection contains a single large Eng bottle. It’s a one-gallon jug with a mouth diameter of precisely 38 mm, as pictured right. Inside the bottle is a brand new tennis ball, a pair of children’s shoes and a large Chinese “button” knot. The tennis ball (65 mm) appears pristine, as do the shoes (75 mm across). The knot, in this case about 55 mm in diameter, was a Harry Eng trademark. He actually tied them inside the bottles. I have absolutely no idea how the shoes and tennis ball were placed into my bottle, nor do I really want to know. That’s one of the wonderful things about Harry’s bottles and impossible objects in general: the longer you stare at them, the more amazing they get. Eng bottles are the closest thing to a “perpetual” magic trick that I have ever seen.

Although Harry took many of his secrets with him when he passed away in 1996 at the age of 64, we do know a few of his methods. One of the more interesting ones explains how he got coins inside bottles. The coins show no signs of cuts or alterations, and are inside bottles with necks half the diameter of the coin! Impossible, yes? Well, not for Harry.

The secret is this: Harry had a small vice constructed that could be disassembled into three small pieces. He would place the parts of the vice into the bottle through the neck and reassemble it inside. Then Harry would carefully bend the coin using padded pliers (so as not to scratch the metal) and slip the bent coin inside. From there, he could manoeuvre the coin into the vice and using a tension tool, tighten it until the coin was squeezed flat. The vice was then disassembled and removed from the bottle. The coin inside was left completely flat and the final “illusion” was fantastic.

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