Moving Images and Phenakistoscopes

It’s hard to go online these days without finding at least one cat GIF. But what did those poor pre-internet souls do without instant moving pictures to entertain them?

(For those who don’t know, a GIF is a term for a moving graphic file, like a short soundless movie clip. The official term is “Graphics Interchange Format”.)

That’s where the phenakistoscope (try saying that five times fast) comes in.

The phenakistoscope – also spelled ‘phenakistiscope’ or ‘phenakitiscope’ – was a circular device with a handle, used to animate illustrations, like one of those little books where you flip through to make the drawings move.

It's a gif AND a phenokistoscope. How meta is that? (via the Library of Congress)

It’s a gif AND a phenokistoscope. How meta is that? (via the Library of Congress)

Who knows what it is that makes us so amused by simple moving images, but it appears to always have been the case.

Two people invented this device in the same year: 1832.

Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau first created the device and named it the phenakistoscope, while Austrian Simon von Stampfer created the similarly-structured ‘stroboscope’ in the same year.

The jungle phenakistoscope in motion.

The jungle phenakistoscope in motion.

The basic structure of the phenakistoscope uses two discs on one axis. The first disc has slots around its edge while the second has the drawings laid out in their pattern of movement. One had to view the tool in a mirror through the first disc’s slots to see the pictures move. Only two years later did William George Horner invent the zoetrope, which didn’t require a mirror and allowed more than one person to view the moving pictures simultaneously.

The phenakistoscope, of course, eventually led to the real ‘moving pictures’, or movies. It established a principle of motion recognized by physicists such as Isaac Newton, which had never before been put into practice. The phenakistoscope inadvertently led to bigger things.

And phenakistoscope art is just as much fun to look at today.

This post by Wired shows some great GIFs of the pieces. Some of them are true works of art. Which one is your favorite?


A good discussion of surrounding topics

Summary of phenakistoscopes

Instructional phenakistoscope

Can we just worship Wikipedia already


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