Optical Toys Exhibit at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics

The name "optical toys" may not be the best way to describe all the devices in our collection.  While some of these devices still exist today as children's toys, many also fascinated adults, both then and now.  Many were illusionary devices, creating illusions of motion from a collection of still images.  Others were viewing devices, allowing people to see fanciful, imaginary scenes, or sometimes ordinary ones in greater magnification.  However, all of these toys had one thing in common.  Their purpose was to provide an exciting departure from reality, and for this reason, they were the most popular forms of entertainment before movies were invented.  

Almost everyone in the pre-cinema age had one form of optical toy or another.  They were the pre-20th century equivalent of TV sets.  Yet, in our modern world of television, cell phones, and digital everything, optical toys are still able to fascinate us.  They can demonstrate concepts such as stereo vision, persistence of vision, and the mechanics of moving pictures.  They can produce images the unaided eye could never see.  They are marvels of skill and imagination, crafted by artisans from around the world.  And although the items in our collection date from between 1825 to 1905, they have not lost the power to capture our attention.

The devices in this exhibit have been donated by Dr. Ralph E. Wileman, Professor Emeritus of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.  He collected the toys and devices, as well as the slides, films, and photos which can be shown on them, while he was at UNC.  For thirty years he had been collecting antiques, and on one occasion he found himself at an antique dealer in Maine.  She showed him her collection of optical toys, and he was immediately taken away by them.  In 1996, he decided to share his collection with the NCSSM community.  The Laura Hayes Wileman and John Howard Wileman Collection, named in honor of his children, is the largest and most varied of its kind in the southeastern US.  

Why optical toys were given long, complex names:

Inventors of the time believed that giving Latin or Greek names to their inventions would lend them credibility.  Names like thaumatrope ("turning marvel") and zoetrope ("wheel of life") were commonplace names for optical toys.  This practice continues even today in the motion picture/television industry.  Greek/Latin prefixes are still added to names we take as being commonplace, such as Technicolor, Panavision, Cinemascope, and even television. 

See a March 15, '99 WTVD11 news segment  
on our optical toys exhibit.
This streaming video file requires RealPlayer.


NCSSM Press Release.  "NCSSM Receives One-of-a-Kind Collection of Antique Optical Toys."  October 21, 1996.  


  • Site design and research by Dahl Clark

  • Photos by Dick Waghorne

  • Animations by Dahl Clark and Loren Winters