The phenakistoscope was one of the very earliest, if not the first, practical animation devices developed by modern man. Although the earliest historical evidence of the explanation of the principle involved in making the phenakistoscope actually function is attributed to Euclid, the ancient Greek mathematician, and there’s evidence that Sir Isaac Newton experimented with such principles, it appears that no one actually fully realized a fully functional, practical device that would do what the phenakistoscope did, until the Belgian inventor Joseph Plateau built his phenakistoscope machine in 1841.
Plateau’s phenakistoscope machine utilized a spinning disc that attached to a vertical handle. Placed around the center, and on the front face of the disc, was a series of drawings, each successive drawing being the next phase, or frame, of the animation. Between each frame was cut a vertical slit through the disc. A viewer would sit holding the disc by the vertical handle, facing the disc toward a mirror. The viewer would place their eye near the rear of the disc, look through the slits, and view the reflection of the front of the disc in the mirror as they spun the disc. The passing of the participant’s view through the slits at regular intervals would, instead of presenting the viewer with a continuous view of the front of the spinning disc, which would cause the images to run together resulting in a non-discernible blur of color and shape, instead present the viewer’s eyes with a fast moving series of still images. This would, of course, result in the illusion of fluid animation to the observer.
The word phenakistoscope comes from the Greek word “phenakizein”, which means to cheat or deceive, and the Greek word “skopein”, which means to look. In other words, Joseph Plateau’s device was a machine that deceived viewers. They were deceived into thinking that a series of still images were actually moving. It really was the first “movie.” Although, since the space available on any disc of a size that could be practically held and spun by a viewer allowed for animations lasting only a very short duration, and since the nature of the round shape of the disc upon which the animation was drawn resulted in a continuous loop when spun, really, the phenakistoscope was actually more akin to being the very first animated GIF.
Today, Jospeh Plateau’s memory lives on. Each year a replica of Plateau’s original phenakistoscope is awarded at the annual Flanders International Film Festival of Ghent to a special honoree who has been deemed to have earned special achievement in the history of international film.
Fortunately, for us, with the advancement of modern technology, we no longer have to sit in front of a mirror, spinning a paper disc in order to enjoy the magnificent weirdness of the phenakistoscope. Technology has brought things around full circle. And now it is possible to record the animations of Joseph Plateu’s phenakistoscope as animated Gifs in order to be viewed and shared on the internet. So here, without further ado, are some wonderful and really weird phenakistoscope animations for you to enjoy: (Share them with your friends! Collect all ten! And so on, and so forth…)
And, from the New York Times of 1898, we have the following mention of such phenakistoscope-like technologies:
The research department here at ReallyWeirdThings.Com is currently searching feverously for more information on the above mentioned “lobsterscope.” We’ll keep you posted with updates if we manage to dig up more information on this curious device.
In the meantime, however, why not create your very own phenakistoscope by following the phenakistoscope lesson located at this link by using their suggestion for constructing a phenakistoscope template. If you manage to make something weird and interesting, let us know about it! You can either turn it into an animated GIF yourself, or, if you lack the means, upload it somewhere as a still jpg image and someone here at ReallyWeirdThings.Com can convert it into an animated GIF for you!