(This history was composed by Michael Edwards for the “Electronic Grymoire”. Slight editing has been done and further information added.)
The evolution of the effect in which three unequal ropes become equal in length (or, later on, the converse) is complex and there has been some disagreement over credits. There are indications that Douglas Kelley and Vincent Lynch developed the fundamental approach in the late 1920s and passed this on to Lyle Laughlin (who is often credited with its creation). In Chronicles, No. 24, 1979, p. 1300, Karl Fulves quoted from a letter written him by Laughlin: “I was beaten out by Tommy Osborne on my 3-1 (“Sealed”) rope trick. Tommy got it by hearsay from Chas. Hoffman who thought he knew it after having seen it demonstrated by Loyd Enochs. Tommy missed two points that really made the trick. Tommy and I later discussed it but there was no big deal about it.” In Pete Biro's column in the February 1983 issue of Genii (Vol. 47 No. 2, p. 123), Laughlin is quoted from a letter to Biro: “Enclosed find copy of my 3-to-l Rope Trick, developed in 1932-33 and shown to Loyd Enochs in 1934, who advertised it as the 'Sealed Rope Trick' without my knowledge and/or permission.” However, Tom Osborne—two or three years before Laughlin said he developed the trick, and four years before Laughlin said he showed it Enochs—advertised “Osborne's Rope Illusion” in The Sphinx, Vol. 29 No. 5, July 1930, p. 231. Osborne's small ad gives no description of the effect, but this is provided in an Ireland Magic Co. ad in the January 1932 issue of The Sphinx, Vol. 30 No. 11, p. 527. By February 1934, the trick began to appear in other ads as Osborne's “Three to One Rope Trick”; see The Linking Ring, Vol. 14 No. 12, back page. Photos hand-dated 1930 also exist of Osborne performing the trick. It is conceivable that Laughlin's account is essentially true, but that his memory on the dates was faulty. But he states the years with apparent assurance.
In 1937, Edward Victor published his rope routine, “My Rope Trick” (in his The Magic of the Hands, p. 84) in which the magician is unable to cut a piece of rope into equal segments. In some respects, this was a two-rope reverse version of “The 3-to-1 Ropes”. While Victor did not claim originality for most of the techniques utilized in his handling, he certainly helped popularize the premise of the equal-unequal ropes. A similar approach, released by Abbott's Magic Novelty Co. just months after Victor's book, was Harold Sterling's “Short and Long Rope Mystery”; see The Linking Ring, Vol. 17 No. 11, Jan 1938, inside back page. This trick was eventually included in Abbott's Encyclopedia of Rope Tricks, 1941, p. 136. A wide array of approaches and techniques found their way into performance or print during the next several years. These include John Goodrum's “The Magic Laces,” Robert Parrish and Oscar Weigle's handling in Do That Again, 1939, p. 70, Cecil Keech's “The Seekay Tricords”, 1947, and Hen Fetsch's marketed four-rope version “Rope Epic”, 1943. Another Fetsch approach (or at least variant) was marketed in 1954 by Gene Gordon under the name “Quadropelets”. Lewis Davenport reworked two phases of the Fetsch routine into a handling in which three apparently equal ropes are displayed, gathered together, made unequal, made equal again. One rope is then handed to a spectator, the remaining two are found to be unequal and are handed out. Davenport called this routine “The Unequal Ropes”.
We get the name “The Professor's Nightmare” from the handling and patter marketed by Gene Gordon in 1958. In the early 1960s, Gordon, who purchased the trick from Paul Young in September 1957, got a letter from Bob Carver, claiming that he had actually invented the trick. Believing Carver to be an honorable man, Gordon added Carver's name as one of the originators of “The Professor's Nightmare”. In recent years, Carver's name seems to be more closely associated with the effect than either Gordon or Young's. Another name associated with the handling (if not the title) is that of Harlan Tarbell, who learned the effect from Gordon and included it in his 1959 British lecture tour. Harry Stanley subsequently marketed the trick in the UK as “Dr. Tarbell's Equally Unequal Ropes”.
In the late 1950s Tony Slydini worked out a handling in which the magician begins with a single length of rope, cuts it into three seemingly equal strands, which then change into three unequal pieces, become equal again, and ultimately are found to be unequal. Slydini's approach was first published in 1966 in Leon Nathanson's Slydini Encores, p. 85, and later as part of his full rope routine in Karl Fulves's The Magical World of Slydini, 1979, p. 18.
Rink's “Double Dutch Rope Routine”, which appeared in The Gen, Vol. 14 No. 11, Mar. 1959, p. 330, also begins with a single strand of rope, but in this case the performer cuts it into three unequal sections. It is worth noting that Rink's routine ended with the restoration of the three pieces into a single, unexaminable length of rope. Also see “The Professor's Incubus” in Hierophant, No. 3, Mar. 1970, p. 122. Tim Wenk published a version of Professor's Nightmare in 1988 in his booklet called “Insomnia”. Wenk's inspirational source was Jeff Stewart's “Perfect Professor's Nightmare”, 1981. In “Insomnia”, the three equal ropes can be displayed in clearly separated condition.
End of Edwards's notes. For a thorough history of the Young-Carver-Gordon connection, see William Spooner's “The Chronology of a Nightmare” in The Linking Ring, Vol. 88 No. 2, Feb. 2008, p. 62, where Spooner examines Young's claim to credit and places the trick entirely in Carver's hands.