The magic of mechanical engineering

5/11/2020 Veronica Holloway

Written by Veronica Holloway

Boyer at The Magic Patio
Boyer at The Magic Patio

A mechanical engineering degree unlocks a wide variety of career opportunities—even magic! Recent alumnus Neal Boyer (BSME ’18) has managed to incorporate mechanical engineering and magic into his career.

Boyer grew up learning magic with his father. Whether it was the illusion of removing a thumb, learning to palm a card, or going to local magic shops and buying tricks in order to learn, Boyer and his father would try to tackle it all. The two often stayed up late reading books on sleight of hand and analyzing David Copperfield and David Blaine TV performances to figure out how the tricks were done. Despite magic being so integral to Boyer’s upbringing, he didn’t really experience a connection between magic and engineering until he began his research with MechSE Assistant Professor Sameh Tawfick

Tawfick remembers Boyer as a gifted and creative student. “It was still a little unusual to me when Neal first shared magic as his passion and motivation to do research.” But Tawfick, who got to know him well, finds it inspiring that Boyer has indeed followed his dreams.

Boyer came to Illinois originally majoring in aerospace engineering because of his love for space, but after speaking to some friends in MechSE about their design courses and their experiences in the Innovation Studio he decided to make the switch. He had always enjoyed building things and was excited to get more opportunities to do so in the mechanical engineering program. He became involved in research with Tawfick after taking ME 370 with him. 

“Neal’s creativity made things work and led us to think in new directions and applications. He used the material [we were studying] to actuate origami and made inspiring artwork such as hygromorphic artificial plants. Also, he was patient and consistent, making progress even when experiments were not working at times,” Tawfick said. “But what I will always remember is our discussions about magic tricks. I didn’t know much about magic before I met him. He taught me a lot. We came up with ideas that I hope one day he takes into practice, ideas that use the most advanced engineering material concepts developed in my lab to create illusions. We can literally put into practice the saying that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

When Boyer graduated, he returned to Chicago and began interviewing for jobs, but found none that he felt passionate about. With some help from a fellow MechSE alumnus and his family, Boyer went to Palo Alto to network in the Bay Area. While there, he was able to set up a meeting with a personal celebrity of his, David Kelley, the founder of the design firm IDEO. After talking to Kelley about his background and his interests, he was put in contact with Andrew Evans, a product designer at IDEO and a professional magician who had built a magic theater called The Magic Patio in his backyard. 

Boyer was shocked to find the one person who seemed to be doing exactly what he dreamed of. After an email and a phone call with Evans, he was offered a position at The Magic Patio. Now, Boyer is stationed in San Francisco working as the Operations Engineer, building new illusions for the Magic Patio.

“I’m someone who values passion over money, so it was a very obvious decision for me to work at The Magic Patio over a more standard mechanical engineering job,” Boyer said. 

Boyer at The Magic Patio.
Boyer at The Magic Patio.

In Boyer’s new role he uses an array of engineering technical skills, applying his knowledge of mechanisms, optics, and even chemistry to create illusions. The better the engineering is behind a magic trick, the less noticeable the engineering is. Boyer said it’s extremely rewarding to be able to apply his MechSE education and witness the audience's reactions to his creations.

Reflecting on his experience at Illinois, he said he is grateful for his professional relationships and the mentorship that he found during his four years. A handful of faculty members gave him confidence by showing belief in his abilities and supporting his passions. 

“Mechanical engineers have a very versatile set of engineering tools. They know mechanics and how physical forces are transmitted in all kinds of matter. They also know design and controls,” Tawfick said. “Combine these and you can build anything from aerospace structures, to medical products and even mesmerizing illusions!”

Follow the progress of Boyer and the engineers at the Magic Patio on Instagram.

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This story was published May 11, 2020.