The Public Paperfolding History Project

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The paperfolding of Robert Harbin
Edward Richard Charles Williams (usually called Ned) was born on February 12th 1909 in Balfour, South Africa, and died on January 12th 1978 in London, England.

In 1932 (see below) he adopted the stage name Robert Harbin. He also subsequently used Robert Harbin as his nom de plume.

He was married to Edith Lilian Philp, dob 22 March 1932 (date of death not known), who acted as his stage assistant under the professional name of Dorothy Hall.

According to his entry on Magicpedia ‘He was the first British illusionist to move from stage performing to television, appearing in the BBC TV show Variety in 1937 and in his own show which began in 1940.'

Like many other magicians before him, he became an enthusiastic paper folder, and made significant contributions to the development of recreational and creative paper folding through his books and television appearances.

I will be grateful to anyone who can provide additional information for this page.



(1) Robert Harbin - Magicpedia

(2) Robert Harbin - IMDb - gives some details of filmography and TV appearances.

(3) David Lister, 'Introduction to the Third Edition' of 'Secrets of Origami' by Robert Harbin, Dover, 1997.

(4) David Lister on Lillian Oppenheimer and Her Friends - an article by David Lister published on the Lister List.

(5) 'Old Time Variety' by Richard Anthony Baker, published in 2011.

(6) 'The History of Paperfolding in Britain' by David Lister, published by the British Origami Society in 1975.

(7) Robert Harbin and Margaret Campbell - an article by David Lister published on the Lister List.

(8) Lillian Oppenheimer on Robert Harbin - video on the You Tube channel of Origami USA.

(9) Gershon Legman - - an article by David Lister published on the Lister List.




Edward Richard Charles Williams was born on February 14th 1909 in Balfour, South Africa.



According to David Lister (6), as an 11 year old child, Robert Harbin first folded the Waterbomb and the Flapping Bird.



According to Magicpedia (1) 'Williams came to London at the age of 20 and began by working in the magic department of Gamages toy shop. He began performing in music halls under the title "Ned Williams, the Boy Magician from South Africa".



'By 1932 he was appearing in the Maskelyne's Mysteries magic show in various London theaters.' (1)

According to 'Old Time Variety' by Richard Anthony Baker (5):



'He was the first British illusionist to move from stage performing to television, appearing in the BBC TV show Variety in 1937' (2)


1939 / 1945

According to David Lister's 'Introduction to the Third Edition' of 'Secrets of Origami' by Robert Harbin (3):

The information that he ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel can also be found on the book jacket of 'Party Lines'.



According to 'Old Time Variety' by Richard Anthony Baker (5):



In his article 'FEATHERS… FEATHERS…' (Personally Speaking – Nov07 – Part 2) Robert Harbin describes how 'Way back in December 1947, I was commissioned to create several different magical effects for the theatrical version of The Wizard Of Oz ...'.

According to 'Old Time Variety' by Richard Anthony Baker (5):



According to David Lister's 'Introduction to the Third Edition' of 'Secrets of Origami' by Robert Harbin (3)

Note, however that in an earlier source (6) David Lister had given the name of the hospital as East Grinstead Hospital.

(Oddly, according to Eric Kenneway, writing in his 'Ori-Comment' column in in British Origami No.62, for February, 1977, Robert Harbin and Margaret Campbell were distant cousins (although Robert Harbin did not know this at the time. (7))

As a result of this incident David Lister (5) says that 'Robert Harbin's latent interest in paper-folding was suddenly revived and he began to pursue the art with an enthusiasm which has never since waned' and:

Cy Endfield was an American film producer who was living in London as a result of the McCarthy era persecution of alleged communist sympathisers. The part that Robert Harbin played in the film 'The Limping Man' was that of a magician, Harper LeStrade. According to David Lister (9) 'Enfield came across Harbin practising paperfolding during the long waits on the set and in return, he showed him how to fold a fine peacock from a pound note, which he had learnt not long before.' (Robert Harbin included the peacock design he learned from Cy Endfield in his 1955 book 'Paper Magic'.)

According to Movie Magg: The Limping Man (Banner/Eros, 1951/53) 'There’s also some confusion about exactly when this film was made, since the Mill Creek Entertainment package lists it as 1951 but gives 1953 — my guess is it was made in 1951 (the dialogue referred to the war as having ended six years earlier) but it wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1953 and that was what was going by.' Clearly if this guess is correct then Robert Harbin's interaction with Cy Endfield on the set happened before the incident at East Grinstead Hospital. However, since 'The Limping Man’ was released in the UK in November 1953, and in the US in December, it is just possible that David Lister's chronology is correct and that it was made entirely in the Summer and Autumn of that year.

In addition to this possible error, David Lister may also have compacted his chronology in respect of the introduction of Robert Harbin to Gershon Legman by Cy Endfield. My best guess is that this did not happen until 1955. In (6) he says of 'Paper Magic': 'Much of the book was compiled before Robert Harbin made contact with Gershon Legman', which does not seem possible if Cy Endfield made the introduction in 1953.



Robert Harbin demonstrated origami in 'Mr Left and Mr Right', a segment of the BBC TV programme 'Jigsaw'. Episodes aired from Dec 1954 to May 1955.

(Incidentally, according to the Wikipedia entry for David Lister, 'Lister was interested in Origami since he was young, but took it up in earnest in 1955 after seeing Robert Harbin on television in the children’s show Mr Left and Mr Right.'



Publication of 'Paper Magic', his first book on paperfolding. Most of the designs diagrammed in the book were traditional Western European or Japanese designs but the book also contained many original designs by Robert Harbin himself, the book’s illustrator, the now disgraced Australian entertainer Rolf Harris (who had also appeared on ‘Jigsaw’), and other paperfolders from around the world.

According to David Lister (3):

and that ‘in addition to all his other achievements, he (Robert Harbin) introduced a new word, origami, into the English language: its first appearance in an English-language book was in Paper Magic.’



According to David Lister (4), Lillian Oppenheimer's son Bill Kruskal gave her a copy of 'Paper Magic' in early 1957. Lillian immediately wrote to Robert Harbin and when she travelled to London to visit her daughter Rosaly in April of the same year she asked him to meet with her.

According to Lillian Oppenheimer's own account (8), when they met Robert Harbin showed her all his papers and books on paperfolding. Robert Harbin then told Lillian about Gershon Legman and gave her Akira Yoshizawa's address so that she could write to him

According to David Lister’s account (4), ‘Lillian also went on to France to try to meet Gershon Legman, but he was away from his home. Nevertheless Lillian began to correspond with him and also with Akira Yoshizawa and Ligia Montoya, whom Gershon Legman had discovered.’.


1958 /9

According to Lillian Oppenheimer's own account (8), she also met with Robert Harbin on her visit to London the following year. On this occasion, finding that Yoshizawa had not replied to her letters, he told Lillian how poor Yoshizawa was and advised her to send aome money with her letters so that he could afford the postage to reply.

David Lister (6) recounts how Samuel and Jean Randlett and Robert Harbin developed the notation system now usually known as the Yoshizawa / Randlett system, the name of Robert Harbin somehow having become detached.



According to David Lister (6):



Publication of 'Paperfolding Fun', a miscellany of tricks, stunts, puzzles and papercraft items, all of which involve an element of paperfolding.

'Paperfolding Fun' may have been written in Bermuda, to which country Robert Harbin seems to have temporarily retired, although according to David Lister (6) he taught origami on television there.



Publication of 'Party Lines', a book of tricks, stunts and novelties intended to be performed as entertainment on social occasions, many of which involve folding paper, handkerchiefs or napkins. The book also contains a chapter devoted specifically to origami which includes designs by Akira Yoshizawa, Ligia Montoya, Adolpho Cerceda and the author.


Publication of 'Secrets of Origami', a book of paperfolding designs. This was a very different kind of book from ‘Paper Magic’. ‘Secrets of Origami’ did contain some traditional designs,  but the bulk of the book was devoted to explaining the new designs of ten creative paperfolders, Robert Harbin himself, Florence Temko, Ligia Montoya, John M Nordquist, Jack J Skillman, Adolpho Cerceda, Neal Elias, Fred Rohm, Robert Neale and George Rhoads.


Also in 1963, according to David Lister (6) Robert Harbin demonstrated origami on the BBC programme 'Topscore':



'The Best of Origami' by Samuel Randlett, which was published in 1964 contained a paperfold by Rober Harbin titled Man in a Boat and the following biographical information:



Publication of ‘Teach Yourself Origami’, by The English Universities Press, 1968 (republished as ‘Origami 1: The Art of Paper-Folding’ in 1969, which, in this guise, became a best-seller).


1968 / 1971

According to Imdb Robert Harbin presented 4 episodes of 'Origami', 'A 10 minute long, afternoon show in which magician and illusionist Robert Harbin makes a design from folding paper.'

However according to Nostalgia Central the show ran for 32 episodes from 1968 to 1972 and 'The show also featured a “Japanese” girl – who was, in fact, Leeds actress Anita Kay in a wig and kimono with lots of makeup.'



Robert Harbin's Welsh Witch design appeared in the 'Flapping Bird' Issue 13.



According to Magicpedia (2), Robert Harbin 'also presented a series of origami programs for ITV in its "Look-In" shows for children in the 1970s.'



Publication of ‘Origami 2: The Art of Paper-Folding’, Hodder, 1971.



Publication of ‘Origami 3: The Art of Paper-Folding’, Hodder, 1972.



Publication of ‘Origami Step by Step’, Hamlyn, 1974.


Robert Harbin's 'Tubble' design appeared in the 'Flapping Bird' Issue 20.



Publication of ‘Have Fun with Origami’, by Severn House, 1975. This was a collection of simple models sent in by viewers during the course of ITV's 'Look -In' shows.



Publication of ‘Origami 4: The Art of Paper-Folding’, Hodder, 1977.



Robert Harbin died on January 12th 1978 in London, England.

According to David Lister's 'Introduction to the Third Edition' of 'Secrets of Origami' by Robert Harbin, which was published by Dover in 1997: