The ‘Phenakistoscope’

Nearly 155 years before CompuServe debuted the first animated gif in 1987, Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau unveiled an invention called the Phenakistoscope, a device that is largely considered to be the first mechanism for true animation. The simple gadget relied on the persistence of vision principle to display the illusion of images in motion. Via Juxtapoz:

The phenakistoscope used a spinning disc attached vertically to a handle. Arrayed around the disc’s center were a series of drawings showing phases of the animation, and cut through it were a series of equally spaced radial slits. The user would spin the disc and look through the moving slits at the disc’s reflection in a mirror. The scanning of the slits across the reflected images kept them from simply blurring together, so that the user would see a rapid succession of images that appeared to be a single moving picture.

Though Plateau is credited with inventing the device, there were numerous other mathematicians and physicists who were working on similar ideas around the same time, and even they were building on the works of Greek mathematician Euclid and Sir Isaac Newton who had also identified principles behind the phenakistoscope.

So what kinds of things did people want to see animated as they peered into these curious motion devices? Lions eating people. Women morphing into witches. And some other pretty wild and psychedelic imagery, not unlike animated gifs today. Included here is a random selection of some of the first animated images, several of which are courtesy The Richard Balzer Collection who has been painstakingly digitizing old phenakistoscopes over on their Tumblr. (via Juxtapoz, 2headedsnake, thanks Brian!)


Since first stumbling onto an early type of image projector called a magic lantern over 40 years ago, Richard Balzer became instantly obsessed with early optical devices, from camera obscuras and praxinoscopes to anamorphic mirrors and zoetropes. Based in New York, Balzer has collected thousands of obscure and unusual devices such as phenakistoscopes, one of the first tools for achieving live animation.

The phenakistoscope relies on a disc with sequential illustrations to create looping animations when viewed through small slits in a mirror, producing an effect not unlike the GIFs of today. These bizarre, psychedelic, and frequently morbid scenes (people eating other people seemed to a popular motif) were produced in great volumes across Europe in the early to mid 19th century. Balzer and his assistant Brian Duffy have been digitizing and animating these discs and sharing the results on Tubmlr since 2012 (previously). Seen here is just a sampling of their efforts over the last year or so, but you can see plenty more here.

An early Phenakistoscope design




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This is Colossal: “New digital Phenakistoscope” + “The first animated gifs