From the Collections: Prepared Minds :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Joyce Bedi, Lemelson Center Senior Historian

Phenakistoscope disk with man and frog, 1833. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A recurring theme at the Inventing American Photography lecture series was how prepared many American scientists, craftsmen, and artists were for the 1839 announcement of Daguerre’s photographic process. Henry Fitz, for example, knew about optics, and more specifically, about grinding lenses, from his work as a telescope maker. Scientist John William Draper had been conducting experiments on the effects of light on various chemicals and salted papers; he already understood how to work with the materials and the theory of photography (he didn’t try to fix his images, though, so they faded away). Samuel Morse had undertaken proto-photographic experiments with chemist Benjamin Silliman. Such scene-setting activities aren’t unusual before the announcement of a new invention. As Louis Pasteur is credited with saying, “chance favors only the prepared mind.”

Milk drop coronet by Harold Edgerton, 1957. Courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, object no. 1991.89.10, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard F. Young.

The Photographic History Collection at the National Museum of American History holds many examples of proto-photographic apparatus. One segment of these is of special interest to me, since I study the development of high-speed photography. Long before Harold Edgerton photographed a milk drop splash, before Eadweard Muybridge made his iconic photos of a running horse, people were mixing science with fun through “philosophical toys” that visually broke down motion into its component parts.

Two sides of a thaumatrope card. From John Ayrton Paris, Philosophy in Sport Made Science in Earnest: Being an Attempt to Implant in the Young Mind the First Principles of Natural Philosophy by the Aid of the Popular Toys and Sports of Youth, 7th edition (London: John Murray, 1853), 378.

One of the earliest “toys” was the thaumatrope, probably invented by John Ayrton Paris in 1825.[1] It was a simple card, with a different image on either side; for instance, a mouse and an empty cage. When the observer twirled the card by the threads attached to each side, the images seemed to merge and the mouse landed in the cage. Paris described the action of the thaumatrope in physiological terms as an illustration of persistence of vision—the idea that, by retaining an afterimage until receiving a new image, the eye compensates for a series of discrete movements which the brain then interprets as seamless motion.

Around the same time, Peter Mark Roget and Michael Faraday separately published research on persistence of vision. Both described the illusion created by rapidly revolving spoked wheels in which the wheels appeared to turn backward at certain speeds.[2] Joseph Plateau read of Faraday’s and Roget’s experiments and began to study the phenomenon as well. Late in 1832, Plateau wrote to Faraday and included a sample of a device he had invented to illustrate the stroboscopic effect.[3] His phenakistoscope, as he called it, was a slotted disk, fastened at the center onto a handle so it could spin freely, like a pinwheel. Separate, sequential pictures on one side blended into fluid motion when the viewer faced a mirror, spun the disk, and looked at the reflection of the images through the rotating slots.

“The Science of the Horse’s Motions.” From Scientific American, October 19, 1878.

Simon Stampfer, a physics professor at Vienna’s Polytechnic Institute, made the same sort of disk, but he named his the “stroboscope.” Roget remarked that he, too, had created a comparable device that predated Plateau and Stampfer. “I constructed several of these at that period (in the spring of 1831), which I showed to my friends; but in consequence of occupations and cares of a more serious kind, I did not publish any account of this invention. . . .”[4]

The zoetrope, a horizontal spinning drum with regularly placed slits in its perimeter, worked on the same principle as the phenakistoscope/stroboscope. A strip of still images was wrapped around the interior wall of the zoetrope drum and viewers looked through the slits as the drum spun to see the “moving” image.

Demonstrating the thaumatrope. From John Ayrton Paris, Philosophy in Sport Made Science in Earnest: Being an Attempt to Implant in the Young Mind the First Principles of Natural Philosophy by the Aid of the Popular Toys and Sports of Youth, 7th edition (London: John Murray, 1853), 376.

The thaumatrope, phenakistoscope/stroboscope, zoetrope, and similar devices were all designed to reconstruct motion; that is, they were used to gain understanding of the phenomenon of persistence of vision by starting with still images and then contriving a method to blend them into the illusion of continuous motion. Because of this emphasis on animating still images, these 19th-century ’scopes and ’tropes are most frequently discussed in terms of their contribution to the history of cinema.

However, the way in which they also broke action into its consecutive parts makes them an important component of the history of stop-action photography as well. The ability afforded by these devices to visually isolate a single moment was taken to the next level by experimenters who adopted photography for their investigations into stopping time. As the camera became the tool for dissecting the movements of humans and animals, another generation of prepared minds got to work.

Want to build your own ’scope or ’trope? The George Eastman House has directions.

[1] The first reference to Paris and the thaumatrope appeared in The Edinburgh Journal of Science 4 (January 1826): 87-88. The author of the notice, presumed to be David Brewster, who edited the journal at this time, does not give a specific date nor a direct credit to Paris as the inventor, instead writing that Paris is believed to be the inventor.
[2] Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1993), 106-7.
[3] A description of the phenakistoscope was published in Correspondance mathématique et physique de l’observatoire de Bruxelles publiée par A. Quetelet, etc. 7 (1832): 365-68. 
[4] Quoted in Nicholas J. Wade, “Toying with Science,” Perception 33 (2004): 1028.

From Prototype, February 2012.

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