he phenakistoscope, an early animation toy, was invented by the Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau in 1832.
Plateau’s invention, which was also known as the “phantascope,” was simple yet effective. The surface of a circular disk was divided into several wedges of equal size—each of which contained one frame of a simple animation loop.
An axis, introduced through a small hole at the center of the circle, allowed the disk to be attached to a handle and spun rather quickly (like a pinwheel). And rectangular notches cut in the outside edge (or inner area) of the disk provided window-like gaps through which the viewer could watch the resultant animation.
Traditionally, the side of the disk that bore the artwork would be placed facing a mirror, and the reflection of the spinning images is what was viewed. The handsome phenakistoscope set shown here (at right) came complete with a pedestal base, a modest selection of animation wheels, and a built-in mirror.
Some later designs incorporated a separate disk for the viewing slits. This second circle was permanently affixed to the spinning axis just a short distance away from where the artwork was mounted—thus eliminating the need for a reflective surface.
Other devices soon followed on the heels of Plateau’s phenakistoscope. Just a little later in 1832, Simon von Stampfer of Austria designed the stroboscopic disk (or “stroboscope”). This was, essentially, the same invention as the phenakistoscope. But the zoetrope and the praxinoscope, which would follow in 1834 and 1877 respectively, were going to be a little different. •
Watch the serpents on this phenakistoscope disk come to life (no audio):