Early Animation Devices

The early developments in primitive animation techniques, discussed in the previous post, were certainly adventurous, yet further advances in animation would not really occur until the 19th century and Peter Roget’s theory “The Persistence of Vision with Regard to Moving Objects”, published 1824 for the British Royal Society.

“This theory referred to the phenomenon whereby the eye’s retina retains an image briefly after it has disappeared, which means that if images are flashed in rapid succession they appear to the human brain as one continuous image. If these images differ slightly, especially if they are sequential, then the images can appear to be one moving image. This discovery led ultimately to all cinema, television and animation.”

(Cavalier, Stephen, 2011, The World History of Animation, London: Aurum Press, p.35)

Roget’s theory explains how the early examples of animation work and, due to this new understanding, numerous new devices for creating animations were soon developed. One of the simplest, but no less effective, was John Ayrton Paris’ thaumatrope (1825), the basis for which is two images on opposite sides of a disc that appear to merge when the disc is spun on strings. Often the two images will be designed so as to interact in some way, the most typical example being a bird on one side of the disc and a cage on the other. When the disc is spun, the bird appears to be trapped in the cage. While a good illusion, it fails to replicate motion as only two drawings can be used. What was required to create the illusion of movement and action was a sequence of images.

A thaumatrope appears in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, 1999

The phenakistoscope was one of the earliest inventions, developed by the Belgian, Joseph Plateau in 1931.

The phenakistoscope

The phenakistoscope, doodles by me.

Often several actions were being carried out in separate concentric circles around the disc, many of which were quite complex, especially when you consider their cyclical nature. This video shows some examples of the images used with the phenakistoscope.

One of the most popular animation or optical illusion devices of the 19th century was the zoetrope. Originally named the daedalum, “the wheel of the devil”, this 1834 invention by William Horner, was soon renamed the zoetrope, “the wheel of life” by the American developer William F Lincoln. Interestingly, a primitive version of the zoetrope has been attributed to the Chinese inventor Ting Huan, and his novelty items of c. AD 180. Cavalier on Ting Huan’s invention:

“These early versions held series of drawings that rotated in the rising air when the device was suspended over a lamp, creating an illusion of movement when rotating at the right speed.” (Cavalier, 2011, p.35)

The Victorian zoetrope consists of an animation reel depicting a sequence of images that form a cycle, placed within the zoetrope wall, a cylinder with slots cut into it which the viewer would look through in order to view the animation.

The zoetrope

The zoetrope

Pixar’s Zoetrope, including an explanation of how the Victorian zoetropes worked and modern examples, including Pixar’s Toy Story and the Studio Ghibli zoetropes, made using 3D sculptures of the characters in progressively changing positions that, when animated with the use of a strobe light, creates the impression of the figures moving.

Until this point, all devices had depended on a person viewing the sequence through slits, which created a strobe effect, necessary for the illusion to work. In 1877, Charles-Emile Reynaud invented the praxinoscope.



The successor to the zoetrope, the praxinoscope consisted of a strip of images, or animation reel, placed on the inner surface of a spinning cylinder. Unlike the zoetrope, this device avoided using slits in the cylinder by having another smaller cylinder, placed within the centre of the device, with mirrors places on its outer surface. When the device was spun, the mirrors would reflect the sequence in a simpler way than before. Reynaud developed his praxinoscope into an early kind of film projector, his Théâtre Optique (1888). Although this device found popularity in Paris, his primitive hand-painted animated film strips couldn’t stand up to the early screenings by the Lumière brothers. Reynaud destroyed his machines in a fit of rage, dying in poverty a few years later.

Numerous animation devices like these were developed, right up until the early form of cinema was introduced, and animation could be filmed, one frame at a time. Although advances have left them obsolete, these devices can help to explain how animation works and, as Pixar and Studio Ghibli have shown, can still be used today.


About startlediguana

Miscellaneous art history blog made for a module at uni. The likelihood of future posts is slim at best, like sliced cheese.
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