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Moving pictures

A modern replica of a Victorian zoetrope, which gave the impression of a moving image when spun. (Photo: Andrew Dunn,

Animation appears to have gotten its start in the Stone Age. The next technological advances did not occur until the Victorian era, when several optical toys were the precursors to modern movie projection systems.

The Lascaux cave paintings in France show a series of images of animals that are partially superimposed. Archeologist Marc Azéma of the University of Toulouse—Le Mirail and artist Florent Rivère have demonstrated how the superimposed pictures give the appearance of movement on the cave wall with torch movements—the first ever "movies." That these effects were intentional is supported by the finding of similarly ancient bone discs incised with pictures on either side—a thaumatrope. When the discs are spun, the images on either side blend together; this creates the illusion of movement. 

The reinvention of the thaumatrope in Victorian times is variously attributed to astronomer John Hershel, physician John Ayrton Paris, lexicographer Peter Mark Roget, or even computer pioneer Charles Babbage, although it would not be surprising if the real inventor were an anonymous London toymaker. Hershel seems most likely, since he also made several important contributions to photography and used the camera lucida in making illustrations of botanical specimens. Paris is known to have used the thaumotrope to demonstrate the persistence of vision to the Royal College of Physicians in 1824. Animation effects rely on the fact that our vision retains an image a fraction of a second longer than the image itself is present. A typical Victorian thaumotrope might have a bird on one side of the disk and a cage on the other, so that spinning it seemed to show the bird in the cage.

The thaumotrope soon gave way to the phenakistoscope, invented by a Belgian, Joseph Plateau, in 1832. This was a disc with a series of images around its edges and also a series of radial slits. The user spins the disk and visualizes the images in a mirror through the slits. As one image fades into another, the persistence of vision gives the effect of movement.

The phenakistoscope was supplanted by the zoetrope in the 1860's, built independently by several British and American inventors, among them game maker Milton Bradley. The true inventor of the zoetrope, however, appears to be Ting Huan, about 180 AD. His device was actually automated by air convection. A zoetrope has the images printed on the sides of a cylinder, which like the phenakistoscope, are viewed through a series of slits. As the cylinder spins, the images appear to move. An improved version, called a praxinoscope, used mirrors arranged in an inner ring of the drum, which when viewed from above, gave a more stable image. Both versions could be linked to crude projection systems.

In 1872, Eadweard Muybridge produced a series of stop action photographs of a race horse to answer the burning question of the era: "When a horse is in full gallop, are all four hooves ever off the ground at the same time?" The answer is yes. This was a milestone in photography, but Muybridge took it a step further. He had a series of his photographs copied onto a glass disc. The images could then be projected from the spinning disc onto a screen, giving the appearance of motion. He called his device the zoopraxiscope and hauled it around with him as he gave lectures around the country. The smoothly running horse gave the public the first taste of what movies would one day become.

The first actual film is thought to be the Roundhay Garden scene, shot by French inventor Louis Le Prince in 1888. It is only a few seconds footage of people wandering around a garden, hardly Oscar material, but it made the point that films could portray movement.

So the next time you make a video with your cell phone camera, keep in mind that you are following a long tradition begun by cave-dwellers in the Stone Age.