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A phenakistoscope disc by Eadweard Muybridge (1893)
The phenakistoscope – a couple waltzing

The phenakistoscope (also spelled phenakistiscope or phenakitiscope) was an early animation device that used the Persistence of vision principle to create an illusion of motion. The Phenakistoscope is regarded as one of the first forms of moving media entertainment that paved the way for the future motion picture and film industry. [1]


The phenakistoscope used a spinning disc attached vertically to a handle. Arrayed around the disc's center was a series of drawings showing phases of the animation, and cut through it was a series of equally spaced radial slits. The user would spin the disc and look through the moving slits at the disc's reflection in a mirror. The scanning of the slits across the reflected images kept them from simply blurring together, so that the user would see a rapid succession of images that appeared to be a single moving picture.

A variant of it had two discs, one with slits and one with pictures; this was slightly more unwieldy but needed no mirror. Unlike the zoetrope and its successors, the phenakistoscope could only practically be used by one person at a time. The phenakistoscope was only famous for about two years due to the changing of technology.

Scientific History[edit]

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 the Belgian Joseph Plateau.[2]

Plateau, among other inventors at the time was also influenced by Peter Mark Roget's work regarding an optical illusion he discovered. Roget wrote a paper explaining how when looking at a moving carriage wheel through a series of narrow apertures, the straight spokes appeared to be curved. Roget's research had profound implications for inventors working with optical illusions. [3]

Commercial Production[edit]

This invention was positively received by society, bringing a new dimension to entertainment media. Plateau worked with Rudolph Ackermann, a popular businessman, to produce the first Phenakistoscopes available to the public. Plateau created the first six drawings himself to be sold commercially to the middle class first as Phantasmascopes, then as Fantascopes or Phantascopes. The Phenakistoscope quickly became popular and helped to pave the way for future cinematic inventions.

Similar Inventions[edit]

A similar contraption that also used the concept of the Persistence of Vision was the Thaumatrope, which preceded the invention of the Phenakistoscope. It consisted of two images on either side of a disc with a string on either side that the user could twirl to blend the images together. Plateau planned his device in 1829 and invented it in 1832. A few weeks after its creation, Simon von Stampfer invented the Stroboscopic disk, an almost identical machine. Stampher was another inventor in the late 1800s with works associated with moving pictures. Although Stampher’s creation came after the Phenakistoscope, Plateau regarded it as an independent project which was still a valuable breakthrough in motion picture and he accredited him on his discovery. [4]


The first part of the term 'phenakistoscope' comes from the root Greek word φενακίζειν - phenakizein, meaning "to deceive" or "to cheat", as it deceives the eye by making the objects in the pictures appear to move.

Alternate names[edit]

Online sources sometimes refer to this invention as the Phantasmascope or the Phantascope.[5] However, Phantascope is also the name given to two different, later, projection-based moving picture devices.


The Special Honorary Joseph Plateau Award, a replica of Plateau's original phenakistiscope, is presented every year to a special guest of the Flanders International Film Festival whose achievements have earned a special and distinct place in the history of international film making.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Prince, Stephen. "Through the Looking Glass: Philosophical Toys and Digital Visual Effects." Projections 4.2 (2010): 19-40. Web.
  2. ^ North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM)
  3. ^ Leskosky, Richard J. "Phenakistoscope: 19th Century Science Turned to Animation." Film History 5.2 (1993): 176. ProQuest.Web. 4 Oct. 2015.
  4. ^ Wade, Nicholas J. “Philosophical Instruments and Toys: Optical Devices Extending the Art of Seeing.” Journal of the History of Neurosciences 13.1 (2004). Tandfonline.Web. 4 Oct. 2015.
  5. ^ [1]

External links[edit]