What is a Phenakistoscope?
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Every day we see so many examples of moving images on our phones, laptops, and TVs that it’s hard to conceive of a time before they existed.
GIFs, animations, films, TV shows—they’re everywhere, all the time, but everything has an origin, and the story of animation and moving image stretches back almost two full centuries to the invention of the Phenakistoscope.
Right now you would be forgiven for thinking two things: 1. the word Phenakistoscope seems difficult to pronounce, and 2. a Phenakistoscope sounds like something a doctor would use in a medical procedure.
For the record: 1. is true and 2. is false. The Phenakistoscope is actually the earliest animation device to demonstrate continuous movement. It uses the persistence of vision principle to give the illusion of motion, and works in a similar way to film. In both instances, they use minimal differences between images to create the illusion of movement.
How the Magic Happens
The way in which a Phenakistoscope works is remarkably simple but extremely fun.
A series of images are drawn onto a cardboard disc, and then slits are cut in the cardboard between each image. A spindle with a handle is then placed through the middle of the disc so that the disc can be easily turned by hand. The tip of the spindle is then placed on a mirror, with the sequence of images facing the mirror. The user then turns the spindle to rapidly spin the cardboard disc, and when the person looks through the slits, the image appears to move as a looping animation.
Another version of the Phenakistoscope used two cardboard discs – one with the slits on it as the base disc, and one disc with pictures that would be spinning disc. The upside of two discs was that you didn’t need to use a mirror to make it work, although using two discs was a bit trickier and more unwieldy. The way in which a Phenakistoscope tricks your brain is the same way that the frames of a film trick your brain – when successive images appear in quick enough succession, your brain turns them into one consistently moving image.
One of the most remarkable facts about the history of the Phenakistoscope is that it was invented simultaneously by two different people.
Back in 1832, a Belgian physicist called Joseph Plateau was the first person credited to have created what would become known as the Phenakistoscope. He had started to experiment with optical illusion as a university student in the late 1820s, which ultimately led him to create the Phenakistoscope a few years later.
Plateau actually had a background in art and designer – his father was a painter and illustrator who was keen for his son to follow in his footsteps. Plateau senior enrolled his son in the Academy of Design in Brussels, but Joseph Plateau took a different path and eventually became a scientist. However, his artistic skills proved very useful, as he actually hand-painted the original designs on the first Phenakistoscopes.
Remarkably, at the same time as Joseph Plateau was developing his creation, the Austrian mathematician and inventor, Simon von Stampfer, was working with optical illusions in a similarly experimental way.
It turns out that both Plateau and Stampfer were inspired by the work of the English scientist Michael Faraday, who had published a paper on optical illusions that are found in rotating wheels. In late 1832, Simon von Stampfer had created a device that he named his version the Stroboscope, and it turned out to be the exact same type of device as the Phenakistoscope.
It’s an incredible quirk that two people working independently of each other in different parts of the world came up with the same concept at the same time, and it feels like the Phenakistoscope was destined to exist.
Soaring in Popularity
In 1833, both Simon von Stampfer and Joseph Plateau were involved in different commercial productions of Phenakistoscopes.
Von Stampfer worked with art dealer and publisher Mathias Trentsensky to get a patent for the production of discs, and they sold well instantly. Editions were then sold in England by a publishing company based there. In total, von Stampfer is credited with producing around 28 different Stroboscopes.
While Joseph Plateau didn’t patent his creation, he did work with Ackermann & Co in London to produce a series of six disc designs, and Ackermann & Co went on to produce more discs with other designers, renaming the invention as the Fantascope.
As with any successful novelty, a crowd of imitators and copycats were attracted by the popularity and started producing their own versions. In the following few years, numerous publishers appeared and started to produce their own versions of the Phenakistoscope. Some of these were of dubious quality, and both Plateau and von Stampfer complained about the quality of the copycats and tried to distance themselves from the imitators.
This period of mass market appeal and commercial production was unfortunately quite short lived.
After around two years, the Phenakistoscope was overtaken by new inventions, and while this form of animation device retained some kind of presence, it became more of a children’s toy than an exciting new medium.
The Zoetrope appeared in the scene almost immediately after the Phenakistoscope. It’s basically a cylindrical version of the same device, with picture strips inside a cylinder with slits in it. This had the major advantages of not only allowing the strips to be easily replaced, but it also meant more than one person could interact with the device at a time. The best known version of the Zoetrope was created by the giant toy company Milton Bradley in 1866, and it went on to become hugely popular.
After the Zoetrope, projection and film became the next technological developments to upend the world of animation.
While the Phenakistoscope might have only really burned brightly for two years or so, it can be said that it is the forerunner of modern cinema and animation.
A Resurgence in Interest
The Phenakistoscope and the art produced with it has experienced somewhat of a revival in recent years.
This is in no small part thanks to the New York collector, Richard Balzer. Balzer has been collecting early optical devices for the better part of four decades, and part of his collection is focused on Phenakistoscopes. Along with his assistant, Balzer has been digitizing the charming illustrations of the early devices and uploading them to his Tumblr account.
It’s fascinating to see the developments in this art form over time, and see how the designs changed through the decades in which they were produced.
As well as digitizing old Phenakistoscopes, people have also been making their own, perhaps as an antidote to our overly online lives. You can now find online resources and tutorials to help you make your own devices, and even cooler than this, there is an even a way in which you can use a vinyl record player to spin a modern Phenakistoscope disc, and then use the frame rate of a camera phone to blend the frames together.
While the popularity of the Phenakistoscope might have been relatively short lived, the influence and impact of the invention has kept its spirit alive and modern animation owes a huge debt to this centuries old device.
If you’re looking for some analogue fun and you want to flex your animation skills in a unique way, why not create your own custom Phenakistoscope? You could draw each frame using Vectornator and print them onto a cardboard disc. Bonus points if you can create one that is based on a modern GIF. Now that would be meta.
And as a bonus, check out this awesome tribute video to Phenakistoscope pioneer, Joseph Plateau.