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History of Zoetropes

Rohini Mohan Feb 28, 2020
Imagine living in an age where the only way to watch moving pictures was through simple and handmade animation toys. The zoetrope is one such vintage toy, that made it possible for multiple viewers to see pictures come to life.

Did You Know?

The oldest known prototype of a zoetrope is believed to have been made in China by the inventor Ting Huan, way back in 180 AD!
Thus, the zoetrope does not have one particular maker, since its prototypes have been around for centuries. The zoetrope or the wheel of life is a type of circular handmade animation toy, that, when turned, produces moving pictures.
This device was believed to function on the principal of 'persistence of vision' - a physiological phenomenon of the eye, which makes a moving image leave an afterimage on the retina for a few seconds. This 'seemed persistence' of an image helped the viewer see a series of related images in a continuous motion.

The iconic, stringed 'bird in a cage' thaumatrope and the hand-held phenakistoscope were the two major animation toys that were invented before the zoetrope appeared. This Historyplex article reveals more about the history of zoetropes.

Invention of The Daedalus or Victorian Zoetrope

It took none other than a mathematician to make the modern zoetrope. In 1834, William George Horner made the zoetrope in England, and called it the 'Daedalum', which he named after 'Daedalus', a great craftsman from Greek mythology. It was the American developer William F. Lincoln who named his daedalum prototype the 'zoetrope' in 1867.
The word 'zoetrope' is derived from the Greek word zoe, which means 'life', and tropos, meaning 'to turn'. It was also called the 'wheel of life', because this cylindrical toy made static images appear to move.
The design of William George Horner's daedalus was inspired by the Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau's phenakistoscope, which was introduced to the public in 1832.
The phenakistoscope worked on the principle of persistence of motion in order to create an illusion of motion.This mechanical disc was placed in front of the viewer's face, and required to be seen in front of a mirror, so that the images drawn on the surface of the disc facing the mirror could be visible.
The phenakistoscope also had vertical slits so that the viewer could see the images moving, while peering through the slits from behind the circular disc. This device was supported by a stick, and had a pin that acted as the central axis for the disc to turn on.

Functioning of the Zoetrope

The Victorian zoetrope (daedalus) consisted of a cylindrical drum without a lid. It also had vertical slits made on its sides for people to peer through. The drum was made to rest on a centered axis, upon which the drum could turn easily.
Hand-drawn or painted images were made on a strip of white paper, which was placed as a band inside the inner surface of the cylinder. This way, when someone looked through one of the slits of the drum, he looked down at the images inside the cylinder.
When the drum was spun, the viewer saw the images moving with rapid succession, which appeared as pictures in motion. The advantage that the zoetrope had over the phenakistoscope, was that, there was no need for a mirror to see the images moving, nor did it have to be held by hand.
It also had a more stable central axis, that could be rested on a flat surface, and could be viewed by multiple people because of its open drum-shaped design and its many vertical slits.

Rise in Popularity

People called the daedalum the 'wheel of the devil', and did not take well to the contraption for several decades. It was much later, in the 1860s, that the daedalum was patented by makers in both England and America, began to be marketed, and become more popular. It was marketed by the American game designer and producer Milton Bradley. William F. Lincoln received the patent for this device and renamed it as 'zoetrope' in 1867.

Fall in Popularity

The zoetrope became more and more obsolete after the introduction of the praxinoscope by Charles-Émile Reynaud in 1877, which had a much more improved design as compared to the zoetrope.
The flexible roll film created by Peter Houston in 1881, made it possible to view pictures through a reel, and became the stepping stone for the creation of motion pictures. 1895 saw the birth of modern cinema, and that made it increasingly difficult for the zoetrope to compete and stay relevant as an animation toy.

Linear Zoetrope

The modern version of the zoetrope is called the 'linear zoetrope', which comprises a linear screen that is opaque and has vertical slits. Connective images are placed behind each slit. Each of these slits is lit with lights, so that the images are clearly visible. The images appear to move when a viewer passes by such a linear zoetrope. These types of large and modern zoetropes are used mainly as billboards.
In 1980, American filmmaker Bill Brand's linear 'Masstransiscope' zoetrope was installed in the abandoned Myrtle Avenue station platform in Brooklyn, New York. The zoetrope has a total of 228 slits and an equal number of hand-painted background panels. The artwork can be viewed by looking from the right windows of the Manhattan-bound B and D Sixth Avenue Express, and Q Broadway Express trains.
In 2008, the Masstransisope was restored, and is now accompanied by more hand-painted zoetropes by other artists.
In 2001, Joshua Spodek installed the world's largest digital linear zoetrope in Union Square, which is 980 feet long, and gives straphangers a 20-second visual of the animation.
In 2008, Sony got the world's largest zoetrope (as mentioned in the Guinness World Records) made by UK-based Artem Limited. The BRAVIA-drome was built at Venaria in Italy, and depicts 64 images of the footballer Ricardo Kakà
Zoetropes, along with all other vintage animation toys, have played a crucial role in paving the way for making modern cinema and animation possible. Without these humble toys, would viewing moving images on the big screen or a digital tablet have been possible?