Phenakistoscope

Joseph Plateau, 1832

History | How it works | What became of it | Animations
Video Demonstrations | Sources | Back to Optical Toys

History:

In 1832, Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau and his sons introduced the phenakistoscope ("spindle viewer").  It was also invented independently in the same year by Simon von Stampfer of Vienna, Austria, who called his invention a stroboscope.  Plateau's inspiration had come primarily from the work of Michael Faraday and Peter Mark Roget (the compiler of Roget's Thesaurus).  Faraday had invented a device he called "Michael Faraday's Wheel," that consisted of two discs that spun in opposite directions from each other.  From this, Plateau took another step, adapting Faraday's wheel into a toy he later named the phenakistoscope.  

How it works:

The phenakistoscope uses the persistence of motion principle to create an illusion of motion.  Although this principle had been recognized by the Greek mathematician Euclid and later in experiments by Newton, it was not until 1829 that this principle became firmly established by Joseph Plateau. 

The phenakistoscope consisted of two discs mounted on the same axis.  The first disc had slots around the edge, and the second contained drawings of successive action, drawn around the disc in concentric circles.  Unlike Faraday's Wheel, whose pair of discs spun in opposite directions, a phenakistoscope's discs spin together in the same direction.  When viewed in a mirror through the first disc's slots, the pictures on the second disc will appear to move.  

top

What became of it:

After going to market, the phenakistoscope received other names, including Phantasmascope and Fantoscope (and phenakistiscope in Britain and many other countries).  It was quite successful for two years until William George Horner invented the zoetrope, which offered two improvements on the phenakistoscope.  First, the zoetrope did not require a viewing mirror.  The second and most influential improvement was that more than one person could view the moving pictures at the same time.  

Links to animations:
(requires JavaScript-enabled web browser)

Cyclist (small, medium, large)
Instructional Phenakistoscope
 
Dragon
Waltz

Links to video demonstrations:

Streamed (requires RealPlayer G2 or higher)
Fast connection (T1/LAN/DSL/cable) only
All connections

For higher video quality in a downloadable file
Video for Windows

QuickTime

top

Sources:

Origin of the phenakistoscope's name:
http://web.inter.nl.net/users/anima/optical/phena/index.htm