My favorite magician of old is Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734-1804) who invented a chess playing automaton, sometimes called the Mechanical Turk. As a magician and a Silicon Valley CTO, Kempelen has always fascinated me because he highlights the link between computers and magic. These two fields have more in common than one might realize. I think that my early study of magic has helped in the software business when presenting new products, for example.
The computer revolution is built on this vision of a thinking machine. IBM's Deep Blue chess playing machine is an even more direct example. Robots in the popular imagination are also related to the concept of his automaton. There is even a marketplace available from Amazon Web Services called The Mechanical Turk which uses outsourced labor to do certain tasks on demand. The magical concepts of misdirection, good timing, and a big finish all apply -- just watch a Jobs keynote at MacWorld and you will see what I mean.
Kempelen also had a big impact on magic. Think about The Wizard of Oz, where the man behind the curtain is really the one making things happen. Puppetry, ventriloquism, and remotely controlled characters all benefit from this legacy. Mentalism and spiritualism are also related.
Along the way, Kempelen invented one of the first magic cabinets, which could be displayed empty before the chess match. This cabinet had a very sophisticated multiple door and sliding panel system of operation. The cabinet was still used after Kempelen's death in various presentations and shows up until 1854, when it was tragically lost to fire in London.