The Zoetrope: Moving Pictures from ACTUAL Moving Pictures

Prior to the invention of motion pictures (or “movies,” as you lazy kids today call ‘em), mankind made several attempts to reproduce motion from still images. One of the earliest and most successful of these was the zoetrope, a device whose origins may date as far back as the 1st century BCE.


Fake It ‘til You Make It

The first and most common form of zoetrope, generally referred to as simply a “zoetrope”, is technically a “cylindrical zoetrope”. These devices consist of a rotating cylinder with vertical slits in its sides. A band of sequenced images is painted (or otherwise applied) to the inner diameter of the cylinder. As the cylinder rotates, users see these images passing by rapidly, and their sequencing and speed, along with the human eye’s “persistence of vision”, combine to create the illusion of movement. The slits, separated by sections of cylinder wall, keep the images from blurring together.

The earliest records of this invention date back to around 100 BCE, when a Chinese inventor name Ding Huan reported created a “variety of zoetrope” that could produce the illusion of moving pictures. There is no hard evidence of the existence of this device, however, and it is likely apocryphal.

The first cylindrical zoetrope for which legit evidence does exist is credited to William George Horner, a British mathematician. Horner’s invention, which he called a “daedaleum”, was based on the then-recently invented phenakistoscope disc, which performed a similar function in a similar matter. Invented in the early 1830s, Horner’s zoetrope place the viewing slits between the individual pictures.

It was not until the 1860s that the zoetrope’s popularity truly skyrocketed, however. A slight variation in Horner’s design placed the view slits above the pictures, and therefore made it possible to change out the still images within, thus creating new viewing experiences as the user so pleased. American inventor William F. Lincoln dubbed his version of the device the “zoetrope”, from the Greek for “wheel of life”, and the name stuck.

The zoetrope was an improvement on phenakistoscope discs, on which images were aligned radially around a disc’s diameter. The zoetrope allowed multiple people to view the moving images at the same time. No matter where they stood in relation to the device, every viewer would see the same thing.

The zoetrope was eventually displaced by the praxinoscope, which used mirrors and essentially the same principle to produce smoother images. The praxinoscope, too, was rendered obsolete by further technological innovations, such as the aforementioned motion pictures.

Subway Zoetropes

The illusion of movement created by a zoetrope works with linear motion, as well. To that end, artists and advertisers often create “linear zoetropes” along the walls of subway tunnels, using the movement of the train in place of a spinning cylinder to fool the viewer’s eye.

Created in 1980 (and restored in 2008), filmmaker Bill Brand’s “Masstransiscope” was the first subway zoetrope. Installed at a now-unused subway platform in New York City, the huge artwork consists of 228 hand-painted panels. As subway riders pass by, the movement of the train—along with strategically placed, slitted panels—makes the images appear to be in motion.

In September 2001, graduate student Joshua Spodek developed a linear zoetrope “advertisement” that was installed in the Atlanta subway system. This marked the first commercial use of a zoetrope in more than a century. The internally lit, nigh 1000-foot long display produces animation lasting nearly 20 seconds. Following its success, Spodek’s design was recreated in a number of subway systems throughout the world.

In the mid-2000s, both the Washington (D.C.) Metro and San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system installed zoetrope advertisements. Subway zoetrope advertisements have also been installed, with varying levels of success, in Kiev, Ukraine, Mexico City, and various locations across Europe and Asia.

Video credit: Chris Artell
Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA