Ayrton Paris, 1825
| How it works | What
became of it | Animations
Video Demonstrations | Sources
to Optical Toys
The invention of the thaumatrope, whose name means
"turning marvel" or "wonder turner," has often been credited to the
astronomer Sir John Herschel. However, it was a well-known London
physicist, Dr. John A. Paris, who made this toy popular.
Thaumatropes were the first of many optical toys, simple
devices that continued to provide animated entertainment until
the development of modern cinema.
How it works:
A thaumatrope is a small disc, held on opposite sides of its
circumference by pieces of string. An image is drawn on
each side of the disc, and is selected in such a way that when
the disc is spun, the two images appear to become
superimposed. To spin the disc, one string is held in a
hand, and the disc is rotated to wind the string. Then,
both strings are held, and the disc is allowed to rotate. Gently
stretching the strings will ensure that they continue to unwind
and rewind. This motion causes the disc to rotate, first
in one direction and then in the opposite. The faster the
disc rotates, the greater the clarity of the illusion.
Although the thaumatrope does not produce animated scenes, it
relies on the same persistence of vision principle that
other optical toys use to create illusions of motion.
Persistence of vision is the eye's ability to retain an image
for roughly 1/20 of a second after the object is gone. In this
case, the eye continues to see the two images on either side of
the thaumatrope shortly after each has disappeared. As the
thaumatrope spins, the series of quick flashes is interpreted as
one continuous image.
One example of a thaumatrope has a tree with bare branches on
one side, and on the other, its leaves. When spun, the
tree appears to be full of leaves. Another example has a
bird on one side, and a cage on the other. When spun, the
bird appears to be in its cage. The bird-cage pair of
images were used on the first thaumatrope, and is the most
common one seen on thaumatropes today.
What became of it:
Most pairs of thaumatrope images were pictures that did not
imply motion, such as running animals or dancing people. A
thaumatrope could only take two images and merge them,
essentially creating one still image from two. The
phenakistoscope was a great improvement on the thaumatrope,
creating one moving image from several stills, and became the first
optical toy to create a true illusion of motion.
Links to animations:
Links to video demonstrations:
(requires RealPlayer G2 or higher)
connection (T1/LAN/DSL/cable) only
higher video quality in a downloadable file
Video for Windows
to build a simple thaumatrope: