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Zoetrope facts for kids

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A modern replica of a Victorian zoetrope

A zoetrope is one of several pre-film animation devices that produce the illusion of motion by displaying a sequence of drawings or photographs showing progressive phases of that motion. It was basically a cylindrical variation of the phénakisticope, suggested almost immediately after the stroboscopic discs were introduced in 1833. The definitive version, with easily replaceable picture strips, was introduced as a toy by Milton Bradley in 1866 and became very successful.


The name zoetrope was composed from the Greek root words ζωή zoe, "life" and τρόπος tropos, "turning" as a translation of "wheel of life". The term was coined by inventor William E. Lincoln.


The zoetrope consists of a cylinder with cuts vertically in the sides. On the inner surface of the cylinder is a band with images from a set of sequenced pictures. As the cylinder spins, the user looks through the cuts at the pictures across. The scanning of the slits keeps the pictures from simply blurring together, and the user sees a rapid succession of images, producing the illusion of motion. From the late 19th century, devices working on similar principles have been developed, named analogously as linear zoetropes and 3D zoetropes, with traditional zoetropes referred to as "cylindrical zoetropes" if distinction is needed.

The zoetrope works on the same principle as its predecessor, the phenakistoscope, but is more convenient and allows the animation to be viewed by several people at the same time. Instead of being radially arrayed on a disc, the sequence of pictures depicting phases of motion is on a paper strip. For viewing, this is placed against the inner surface of the lower part of an open-topped metal drum, the upper part of which is provided with a vertical viewing slit across from each picture. The drum, on a spindle base, is spun. The faster the drum is spun, the smoother the animation appears.

Earlier rotating devices with images

1635 John Bate - The Mysteries of Nature and Art p.29
Device described in John Bate's The Mysteries of Nature and Art (1635)

An earthenware bowl from Iran, over 5000 years old, could be considered a predecessor of the zoetrope. This bowl is decorated in a series of images portraying a goat jumping toward a tree and eating its leaves. Though the images are sequential and seem evenly distributed around the bowl, to have the images appear as an animation the bowl would have to rotate quite fast and steadily while a stroboscopic effect would somehow have to be generated. As such, it remains very uncertain if the artist who created the bowl actually intended to create an animation.

According to a 4th-century Chinese historical text, the 1st-century BC Chinese mechanical engineer and craftsman Ding Huan created a lamp with a circular band with images of birds and animals that moved "quite naturally" when the heat of the lamp caused the band to rotate. However, it is unclear whether this really created the illusion of motion or whether the account was an interpretation of the spatial movement of the pictures of animals. Possibly the same device was referred to as "umbrella lamp" and mentioned as "a variety of zoetrope" which "may well have originated in China" by historian of Chinese technology Joseph Needham. It had pictures painted on thin panes of paper or mica on the sides of a light cylindrical canopy bearing vanes at the top. When placed over a lamp it would give an impression of movement of animals or men. Needham mentions several other descriptions of figures moving after the lighting of a candle or lamp, but some of these have a semi-fabulous context or can be compared to heat operated carousel toys. It is possible that all these early Chinese examples were actually the same as, or very similar to, the "trotting horse lamp" [走馬燈] known in China since before 1000 AD. This is a lantern which on the inside has cut-out silhouettes or painted figures attached to a shaft with a paper vane impeller on top, rotated by heated air rising from a lamp. The moving silhouettes are projected on the thin paper sides of the lantern. Some versions added extra motion with jointed heads, feet or hands of figures triggered by a transversely connected iron wire. None of these lamps are known to have featured sequential substitution of images depicting motion and thus don't display animation in the way that the zoetrope does.

Livingpicturesth00hopw 0052R
Four phase animation device as depicted in Hopwood's Living Pictures (1899)

John Bate described a simple device in his 1634 book "The Mysteries of Nature and Art". It consisted of "a light card, with several images set upon it" fastened on the four spokes of a wheel which was turned around by heat inside a glass or horn cylinder, "so that you would think the immages to bee living creatures by their motion". The description seems rather close to a simple four-phase animation device depicted and described in Henry V. Hopwood's 1899 book Living Pictures (see picture). Hopwood gave no name, date or any additional information for this toy that rotated when blown upon. A similar device inside a small zoetrope drum with four slits, was marketed around 1900 by a Parisian company as L'Animateur (or The Animator). However, Bate's device as it is seen in the accompanying illustration seems not to have actually animated the images, but rather to have moved the images around spatially.


Simon Stampfer (1833)

Simon Stampfer, one of the inventors of the phenakistiscope animation disc (or "stroboscope discs" as he called them), suggested in July 1833 in a pamphlet that the sequence of images for the stroboscopic animation could be placed on either a disc, a cylinder or a looped strip of paper or canvas stretched around two parallel rollers. Stampfer chose to publish his invention in the shape of a disc.

William Horner (1834)

After taking notice of Joseph Plateau's invention of the phénakisticope (published in London as "phantasmascope") British mathematician William George Horner thought up a cylindrical variation and published details about its mathematical principles in January 1834. He called his device the Dædaleum, as a reference to the Greek myth of Daedalus. Horner's revolving drum had viewing slits between the pictures, instead of above as the later zoetrope variations would have. Horner planned to publish the dædaleum with optician King, Jr in Bristol but it "met with some impediment probably in the sketching of the figures".

Experimental photographic sequence viewers (1850s–1860s)

1855 czermak - das Stereophoroskop (fig. 26) (crop)
Czermak's 1855 Stereophoroskop

During the next three decades the phénakisticope remained the more common animation device, while relatively few experimental variations followed the idea of Horner's dædaleum or Stampfer's stroboscopic cylinder. Most of the zoetrope-like devices created between 1833 and 1865 were intended for viewing photographic sequences, often with a stereoscopic effect. These included Johann Nepomuk Czermak's Stereophoroskop, about which he published an article in 1855. On 27 February 1860 Peter Hubert Desvignes received British patent no. 537 for 28 monocular and stereoscopic variations of cylindrical stroboscopic devices. This included a version that used an endless band of pictures running between two spools that was intermittently lit by an electric spark. Desvignes' Mimoscope, received an Honourable Mention "for ingenuity of construction" at the 1862 International Exhibition in London. It could "exhibit drawings, models, single or stereoscopic photographs, so as to animate animal movements, or that of machinery, showing various other illusions." Desvignes "employed models, insects and other objects, instead of pictures, with perfect success." The horizontal slits (like in Czermak's Stereophoroskop) allowed a much improved view, with both eyes, of the opposite pictures.

William Ensign Lincoln & Milton Bradley's Zoetrope (1865–1867)

1867-04 lincoln patent US64117-0R
W.E. Lincoln's U.S. Patent No. 64,117 of Apr. 23, 1867

William Ensign Lincoln invented the definitive zoetrope in 1865 when he was about 18 years old and a sophomore at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. Lincoln's patented version had the viewing slits on a level above the pictures, which allowed the use of easily replaceable strips of images. It also had an illustrated paper disc on the base, which was not always exploited on the commercially produced versions. On advice of a local bookstore owner, Lincoln sent a model to color lithographers and board game manufacturers Milton Bradley and Co. Some shop owners advertised the zoetrope in American newspapers in December 1866. The instrument was first patented in the U.K. on 6 March 1867 under no. 629 by Henry Watson Hallett (as a communication to him by Milton Bradley). In the United States it was patented as the Zoëtrope on April 23, 1867 by William E. Lincoln – as an assignor to Milton Bradley. Over the years Milton Bradley released at least seven numbered series with twelve zoetrope strips each, as well as a set of twelve strips by Professor Robert Hallowell Richards showing the gradual transformations from one isometric form to another, and one separately available strip showing the progress of the Grecian bend (a woman morphing into a camel). The London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company was licensed as the British publisher and repeated most of the Milton Bradley animations, while adding a set of twelve animations by famous British illustrator George Cruikshank in 1870.

James Clerk Maxwell's improved zoetrope

In 1868 James Clerk Maxwell had an improved zoetrope constructed. Instead of slits it used concave lenses with a focal length equaling the diameter of the cylinder. The virtual image was thus seen in the centre and appeared much more sharp and steady than in the original zoetrope. Maxwell drew several strips that mostly demonstrated subjects relating to physics, like the vibrations of a harp string or Helmholtz's vortex rings threading through each other. An article about the "Zootrope perfectionné" was published in French scientific magazine Le Cosmos in 1869, but the device was never marketed. Maxwell's original zoetrope and some strips are kept in the collection of the Cavendish Museum in Cambridge.

Linear zoetropes

A linear zoetrope consists of an opaque linear screen with thin vertical slits in it. Behind each slit is an image, often illuminated. A motion picture is seen by moving past the display.

Linear zoetropes have several differences compared to cylindrical zoetropes due to their different geometries. Linear zoetropes can have arbitrarily long animations and can cause images to appear wider than their actual sizes.

Subway zoetropes


Linear zoetrope-like advertising was in use in Japan in the early 1990s, for example on the line between the Narita airport and central Tokyo.

United States

In September 1980, independent filmmaker Bill Brand installed a type of linear zoetrope he called the "Masstransiscope" in an unused subway platform at the former Myrtle Avenue station on the New York City Subway. It consists of a wall with 228 slits; behind each slit is a hand-painted panel, and riders of passing trains see a motion picture. After falling into a state of disrepair, the "Masstransiscope" was restored in late 2008. Since then, a variety of artists and advertisers have begun to use subway tunnel walls to produce a zoetrope effect when viewed from moving trains.

Joshua Spodek, as an astrophysics graduate student, conceived of and led the development of a class of linear zoetropes that saw the zoetrope's first commercial success in over a century. A display of his design debuted in September 2001 in the Atlanta subway system tunnel and showed an advertisement to riders moving past. The display is internally lit and nearly 980 feet (300 m) long, with an animation lasting around 20 seconds. His design soon appeared, both commercially and artistically, in subway systems around North America, Asia, and Europe.

In April 2006, the Washington Metro installed advertisement zoetropes between the Metro Center and Gallery Place subway stations. A similar advertisement was installed on the PATH train in New Jersey, between the World Trade Center and Exchange Place stations.

At around the same time, the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system installed a zoetrope-type advertisement between the Embarcadero and Montgomery stations which could be viewed by commuters traveling in either direction. The BART ads are still visible, though they are changed infrequently: a particular ad may remain up for several months before being replaced.

The New York City Subway hosted two digital linear zoetropes through its Arts for Transit program. One, "Bryant Park in Motion", was installed in 2010 at the Bryant Park subway station, and was created by Spodek and students at New York University's Tisch School of Arts' Interactive Telecommunications Program. The other, "Union Square in Motion", was installed in 2011 by Spodek and students and alumni from Parsons the New School for Design's Art, Media, and Technology program in the Union Square station.

Other places

The Kyiv Metro (in Kyiv, Ukraine) also featured an advertisement about 2008 for Life mobile telephone carrier in one of its subway tunnels that featured the zoetrope effect. It was quickly taken down.

In Mexico City, Mexico, an advertisement for the Honda Civic featuring a zoetrope effect was placed in one of the Line 2 tunnels.

The Zurich Airport Skymetro features a linear zoetrope.

3D zoetropes

Marey's 1887 zoetrope with ten sculptures of different phases of the flight of a gull

3D zoetropes apply the same principle to three-dimensional models, as already practiced by Czermak (1855) and Desvignes (1860) in predecessors of the zoetrope. In 1887, Étienne-Jules Marey used a large zoetrope to animate a series of plaster models based on his chronophotographs of birds in flight. Modern equivalents normally dispense with the slitted drum and instead use a rapidly flashing strobe light to illuminate the models, producing much clearer and sharper distortion-free results. The models are mounted on a rotating base and the light flashes on and off within an extremely small fraction of a second as each successive model passes the same spot. The stroboscopic effect makes each seem to be a single animated object. By allowing the rotation speed to be slightly out of synchronization with the strobe, the animated objects can be made to appear to also move slowly forwards or backwards, according to how much faster or slower each rotation is than the corresponding series of strobe flashes.


The Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, Japan hosts a 3D zoetrope featuring characters from the animated movie My Neighbour Totoro. The zoetrope is accompanied by an explanatory display, and is part of an exhibit explaining the principles of animation and historical devices.

Toy Story

Pixar created a 3D zoetrope inspired by Ghibli's for its touring exhibition, which first showed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and features characters from Toy Story 2. Two more 3D Zoetropes were created by Pixar, both featuring 360-degree viewing. One was installed at Disney California Adventure, sister park to Disneyland, but has since been moved to The Walt Disney Studios Lot in Burbank, CA. The other was installed at Hong Kong Disneyland from 2010 until 2017, and is now shown in Disneyland Paris as of late 2019. The original Toy Story Zoetrope still travels worldwide and has been shown in 34 national museums and art galleries in 18 countries since 2005.

All Things Fall

All Things Fall is a 3D printed zoetrope, created by British artist Mat Collishaw. It is inspired by a painting by Ippolito Scarsella of The Massacre of Innocents. The work was presented during the solo exhibition Black Mirror at Galleria Borghese in Rome. It is made of steel, aluminium, plaster, resin, lit by LED lights and powered by an electric motor.

Peter Hudson

Over the period 2002–2016, Peter Hudson and the makers at Spin Art, LLC, have created multiple interactive 3D stroboscopic zoetrope art installations. This began with Sisyphish (2002), a human powered zoetrope that used strobe light to animate human figures swimming on a large rotating disk. Sisyphish, sometimes called The Playa Swimmers, was originally unveiled at the arts and culture event, Burning Man, in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.

Peter has since created stroboscopic zoetropes from 2004 to present including: Deeper (2004), Homouroboros (2007), Tantalus (2008), and Charon, which toured Europe and the United Kingdom in summer of 2012. The Charon zoetrope is built to resemble and rotate in the same kinetic fashion as a ferris wheel, stands at 32 feet high, weighs 8 tons and features twenty rowing skeleton figures representing the mythological character, Charon, who carries souls of the newly deceased across the river Styx. Hudson's most recent zoetrope creation is entitled Eternal Return, took two years to build, and was unveiled in 2014 in the Black Rock Desert.

Peter Hudson's zoetropes are based in San Francisco are exhibited at various festivals and special events in the United States and internationally throughout the year.

Giant Zoetropes

An 1857 textbook on physics mentioned an early cylindrical stroboscopic installation with moving images that was 18 feet (5.5 meters) in diameter and had been exhibited in Frankfurt.

A "Great Zoetrope ; or: Wheel of Life", 50 feet (15 meters) in circumference, with "life-size figures", was installed in the Concert Hall of the Crystal Palace in London by permission of the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company. The programme featured at least four animations based on strips in their catalogue. The huge cylinder was turned around by a gas engine and was operative at least from late 1867 to spring 1868.

Sony BRAVIA-drome
The BRAVIA-drome at Venaria, in Northern Italy

In 2008, Artem Limited, a UK visual effects house, built a 10-meter wide, 10-metric ton zoetrope for Sony, called the BRAVIA-drome, to promote Sony's motion interpolation technology. It features 64 images of the Brazilian footballer Kaká. This has been declared the largest zoetrope in the world by Guinness World Records.


Émile Reynaud's 1877 praxinoscope was an improvement on the zoetrope that became popular toward the end of the 19th century. It replaced the zoetrope's narrow viewing slits with an inner circle of mirrors that intermittently reflected the images.

Soon after the zoetrope became popular, the flip book was introduced in 1868. With its simplicity and compactness, along with its more tactile qualities, the flip book has stayed relatively popular. A disadvantage of the flip book can be seen in the fact that the animation stops rather quickly, while the zoetrope can display animation as a continuous loop.

Eadward Muybridge published his first chronophotography pictures in 1878. These sequential pictures were soon mounted in zoetropes by several people (including Muybridge himself) and were also published as strips for the zoetrope in the 1880s. This paved the way for the development of motion pictures. Muybridge's own Zoopraxiscope (1879) was an early moving image projector and one of several inventions made before the breakthrough in 1895.

In 1895 Auguste and Louis Lumière were developing the Kinora simultaneously with the cinematograph. While cinema proved to be an enormous success, the Kinora became a popular motion picture viewer for home use.

Film, television and video are seen as the prevailing successors of the zoetrope, when regarded as technological steps in the development of motion pictures.

GIF animation can arguably be seen as the closest contemporary successor of Zoetrope animation, since both usually show looped image sequences. However, the option of manipulating the speed of the animation is hardly ever present with GIFs.

Contemporary media uses

Since the late 20th century, zoetropes have seen occasional use for artwork, entertainment, marketing and other media use, notably as linear zoetropes and 3D zoetropes (see above).

Making a zoetrope has also become a relatively common arts and crafts assignment and a means to explain some of the technical and optical principles of film and motion viewing in educational programs.

The American company Optical Toys, in Vermont, publishes a paper zoetrope reproduction that was originally published as a newspaper supplement in 1896 in the Boston Herald.

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