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The Zoetrope: Taking Animation for a Spin

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

#59 Science in History

23nd April 1867


Today in 1867, The zoetrope was patented by William E. Lincoln.

The zoetrope is a device that creates the illusion of motion by spinning a series of images inside a drum with slits. It is an early form of animation, and its invention was a significant step forward for the development of early cinema. Lincoln named the device after the Greek zoe (“life”) and tropos ("turning") - essentially "wheel of life".


In the early 19th century, several inventors were trying to find ways to create the illusion of motion. In 1833, William George Horner invented the "daedalum," a device that featured a spinning drum with small viewing slits that allowed the user to see images inside the drum as they passed by. However, Horner's device was only able to display static images, and it wasn't until a few years later that the idea of using the drum to create animation came about.


William Lincoln created a device similar to Horner's daedalum but with a strip of images inside. Lincoln's invention was known as the "wheel of life," and it used a strip of images mounted on the inner surface of a circular drum with viewing slits around the outside. When the drum was spun, the images appeared to move, creating the illusion of motion. However, the "wheel of life" was limited in its animation capabilities because it could only display a few seconds of animation.


In 1866, a French inventor named Pierre-Hubert Desvignes invented the first true zoetrope, which was able to display continuous animation. The zoetrope used a strip of images mounted on the inside surface of a cylinder with viewing slits cut into the sides. When the cylinder was spun, the images appeared to move in a continuous loop, creating the illusion of motion. Desvignes's zoetrope was quickly popularized in Europe and America, and soon many other inventors were creating their own versions of the device.

In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge used a series of zoetropes to capture and study the motion of horses, which led to the development of the first motion picture projector. The zoetrope was also used to create some of the first animated films. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, several pioneering animators used the zoetrope to create short animated films, including Émile Cohl's "Fantasmagorie" (1908), which is considered to be the first animated film ever made.


Physicist James Clerk Maxwell made several significant improvements to the zoetrope in the late 19th century. His improvements made the device more efficient and accurate in displaying animations. One key improvement was the use of a double-sided strip of images. Previously, zoetropes used a single strip of images, which limited the animation to a short sequence. By using a double-sided strip, Maxwell was able to create longer and more complex animations. He also added a shutter to the drum which allowed the images to be displayed for a precise amount of time, creating a more fluid and realistic animation. This was particularly useful for animating complex movements, such as a running animal.





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