The Intriguing History of Zoetropes

Imagine living in an age where the only way to watch moving pictures was through simple and handmade animation toys. The zoetrope is one such vintage toy, that made it possible for multiple viewers to see pictures come to life.

Did You Know?
The oldest known prototype of a zoetrope is believed to have been made in China by the inventor Ting Huan, way back in 180 AD!
Thus, the zoetrope does not have one particular maker, since its prototypes have been around for centuries. The zoetrope or the wheel of life is a type of circular handmade animation toy, that, when turned, produces moving pictures.

This device was believed to function on the principal of ‘persistence of vision’ – a physiological phenomenon of the eye, which makes a moving image leave an afterimage on the retina for a few seconds. This ‘seemed persistence’ of an image helped the viewer see a series of related images in a continuous motion.

The iconic, stringed ‘bird in a cage’ thaumatrope and the hand-held phenakistoscope were the two major animation toys that were invented before the zoetrope appeared. This Buzzle article reveals more about the history of zoetropes.
Invention of The Daedalus or Victorian Zoetrope
It took none other than a mathematician to make the modern zoetrope. In 1834, William George Horner made the zoetrope in England, and called it the ‘Daedalum’, which he named after ‘Daedalus’, a great craftsman from Greek mythology. It was the American developer William F. Lincoln who named his daedalum prototype the ‘zoetrope’ in 1867.
The word ‘zoetrope’ is derived from the Greek word zoe, which means ‘life’, and tropos, meaning ‘to turn’. It was also called the ‘wheel of life’, because this cylindrical toy made static images appear to move.
The design of William George Horner’s daedalus was inspired by the Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau’s phenakistoscope, which was introduced to the public in 1832. The phenakistoscope worked on the principle of persistence of motion in order to create an illusion of motion. This mechanical disc was placed in front of the viewer’s face, and required to be seen in front of a mirror, so that the images drawn on the surface of the disc facing the mirror could be visible. The phenakistoscope also had vertical slits so that the viewer could see the images moving, while peering through the slits from behind the circular disc. This device was supported by a stick, and had a pin that acted as the central axis for the disc to turn on.

Functioning of the Zoetrope

Vintage Zoetrope
The Victorian zoetrope (daedalus) consisted of a cylindrical drum without a lid. It also had vertical slits made on its sides for people to peer through. The drum was made to rest on a centered axis, upon which the drum could turn easily.