Joseph Plateau’s Phenakistiscope

Today's Google Doodle is in hour of the invention of the phenakistiscope, an invention considered a important precursor to the development of early cinema.

Joseph Plateau was a Belgian physicist and mathematician and one of the first people to demonstrate the illusion of moving image through basic technological devices. His invention, the phenakistiscope, led to developments such as the kinetoscope, which became early prototypes for modern cinematic processing.

The invention of the phenakistiscope (1830)

The phenakistiscope, also known as a Phantasmascope or Fantascope, was an optical toy. It’s formed essentially out of a flat disc with slots cut into it mounted on a spindle so the disc can rotate. Each slot is illustrated with sequential images so that when the disc spins the series of images looks like one moving image. To see the image, the user would look through the slots and see the images as they were reflected by a mirror. The slot was necessary so that the user would only see one image at a time so that firstly, they produced a fluent stream of pictures and secondly, so that the multiple images didn’t blur into one big, confusing image. The phankistiscope was a development from previous precinematic devices such as the kaleidoscope and the thaumatrope.

Eadweard Muybridge’s Phenakistoscope: A Couple Waltzing
The importance of the phenakistiscope

The ultimate importance of the phenakistiscope is that is was an instrument that created the effect of movement. Despite this, it could not represent movement permanently, but it did lead to technological developments that could.

Developments based on the phenakistiscope (1867-78)

Inventions like the phenakistiscope led to the technique of chronophotography, a Victorian-era prcoess that captured movement by using multiple prints that could be arranged in order to create the illusion of movement but on a larger scale than the phenakistiscope. Chronophotography led directly into the development of cinematography in the early 20th century, which is the technique modern filmmakers rely on today. Before the invention of chronophotography, many other precinematic devices followed in the footsteps of the phenakistiscope. One such important device was the praxinoscope. The praxinoscope was invented by Charles-Emile Reynaud in 1876 and was a successor of the zoetrope. The praxinoscope used images and mirrors placed around an inner surface of a spinning cylinder. When the wheel was spinning, the user would look into the mirrors to see a sequence of images that produced the illusion of movement. French poet Charles Baudelaire claimed that the praxinoscope gave children a “taste for marvellous and surprising effects.”
In 1893, Thomas Edison invented the kinetoscope, which introduced an early model of a cinematic projector. The kinetoscope would go onto form the basis of modern film projection.

Kinetoscope c. 1900

If you are interested in learning more about the phenakistiscope, I recommend reading:

  • Baudelaire’s Media Aesthetics: The Gaze of the Flâneur and 19th-Century Media by Marit Grøtta (2015)
  • Cinematicity in Media History by Jeffrey Geiger and Karin Littau (2013)
  • Animation – Process, Cognition and Actuality by Dan Torre (2017)
  • Mapping the Moving Image: Gesture, Thought and Cinema circa 1900 by Birgit Abels (2010)

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