A: slotted picture disc. B: separate shutter disc      
(A: Richard Balzer Collection)



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The Phenakistiscope, and Stroboscopic Disc

Greek: Phenakistiscope: phenax= deceptive scopio= to look at.
            Stroboskopische: strobo= twisting, whirling scopio= to look at.

phenakisticop, phenakistoscope, fantascope, phantascope, kaleidorama: Stroboskopische Scheiben, Stroboscope Discs.

Stand up, ye spellers, now and spell;
spell phenakistoscope and knell:
Or take some simple word as chilly,
Or gauger Or the garden lily...
Anon, 19th Century 1
The phenakistiscope and 'stroboscopic disc' of the 1830s were the first instruments to create an illusion of movement based on rapidly changing sequence pictures; the basic technique used subsequently in one form or another by the zoetrope, the Zoopraxiscope, cinematography, television, video, and digital motion pictures. These intriguing spinning-disc toys and the sequence drawings produced for them have not been adequately investigated.

The best printed resources to date are F. Paul Liesegang's detailed paper of 1924, Die Erfindungsgeschichte des Lebenstrades; David Robinson's Masterpieces of Animation 1833-1908 (1991); the work of Laurent Mannoni: The Great Art of Light and Shadow (2000), and Le Mouvement continue (1995); Maurice Dorikens's Joseph Plateau (2001); and Georg Füsslin's Optisches Spielzeug (1993). Web sites by François Binétruy, Richard Balzer, and Thomas Weynants provide a good number of accessible images.2 This essay, and its supplements to follow, form an attempt to extend the information and illustrations provided by those important printed reference works and illustrated web sites.

C: Phenakistiscope with separate      
shutter disc, on long axle      
(The Projection Box)

The simplest phenakistiscope (A) is a spinning disc mounted vertically on a handle. Arranged around the circumference of the disc is a series of equidistant radial slots (usually between 8 and 20), and on the face of the disc a series of pictures representing phases of movement of objects, people or animals. The user spins the disc and looks through the moving slots at the sequence reflected in a mirror, the rapid succession of pictures having the appearance of a moving image. The discs were sold in sets, and could be attached and removed from the handle by a simple fixture.

A variant arrangement (B) had a single slotted disc, and smaller picture discs attached directly against it. A later version (C), which eliminated the need for a mirror, had two discs fixed at a distance on the same axis, one with slots and the other (changeable) with pictures. Some sets were designed as table models on wooden stands, with a handle to drive the discs by pulleys.


Pirouetting dancer, a subject      
originally drawn by Plateau,      
published in London by Ackermann      
(Ghent University)


The invention

The device was invented independently at about the same time, late 1832, by Plateau, who adopted the name phenakisticop [phenakisticope or phenakistiscope], and by Simon von Stampfer, who called his version Die Stroboscopischen Scheiben [stroboscopic disc]. Peter Mark Roget later claimed

the invention of the instrument which has since been introduced into notice under the name of the Phantasmascope or Phenakisticope. I constructed several of these at that period, (in the spring of 1831) which I showed to many of my friends; but in consequence of occupations and cares of a more serious kind, I did not publish any account of this invention, which was reproduced on the continent in the year 1833.3


Joseph Plateau      
(Wiki Creative Commons)

Joseph Plateau

Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau (1801-1883) was a Belgian physicist with an interest in the physiology of vision. Born in Brussels, he studied at the University of Liège, graduating as a doctor of physical and mathematical sciences in 1829. Familiar with Roget's work on visual perception, he had already experimented, in 1828, with what became the anorthoscope (a spinning-disc viewer for 'correcting' distorted pictures, not marketed until 1836).4 Meanwhile Michael Faraday, developing work on perception by Roget and Wheatstone, had invented several models of Faraday's Wheel to demonstrate stroboscopic effects. One of these comprised a slotted disc on a spindle. Looking through the slots into a mirror as the disc was spun, the disc would appear to be stationary. This was because the view was blocked while the disc moved, and the brief glimpse of the disc provided as each slot moved past the eye gave an apparently identical view of the toothed disc in the same position.5


Simon Stampfer      
(Wikipedia public domain)

Examining Faraday's disc-mirror device late in 1832, Plateau realised that if sequence pictures of a figure representing phases of movement were drawn on the disc, between the slots - with changes in shape and position - the viewer looking through the slots would see the subject in the mirror in apparent motion, each sequence picture having been rapidly replaced by the next as the disc was sent spinning. He made a disc with 16 slots and 16 line drawings of a dancer pirouetting, making one complete turn, the sequence continuing seamlessly as long as the disc was spinning. Plateau was an accomplished artist; another surviving disc (J. Plateau Collection, Ghent) featuring a flower and a bee, is thought to have been painted by Plateau.6

Simon von Stampfer

Simon von Stampfer was an Austrian mathematician and inventor. In 1832 Stampfer had read in the Journal of Physics and Mathematics, about Michael Faraday's experiments concerning the optical illusion caused by rapidly rotating gears. He conducted similar experiments and eventually developed the Stampfer Disc (also called the Stroboskopische Sheiben, Stroboscope Discs, optical magic disc, or simply Stroboscope ). Essentially, this was the same device as Plateau's phenakistiscope.

Stampfer received the 'imperial privilege' No. 1920 for his invention on 7 May 1833 :

(Approximate translation)

The 1920th S. Stampfer, a professor at Imperial Polytechnic Institute in Vienna. (Wieden, Nro. 64), and Mathias Trentsensky; in the invention, figures and coloured shapes, in fact pictures of any kind, according to mathematical and physical laws so as to distinguish that, if the same with due speed by some mechanism are passed before the eye, while the light beam is constantly interrupted, represent diverse optical illusions in related movements and actions to the eye itself, and these images are easiest drawn on sheets of cardboard or any other suitable material, at the periphery of which holes are provided for viewing.

When these discs, opposite a mirror, are quickly turned around on their axes, there appears to the eye when browsing through the holes lively images in the mirror, and in this way can not only mechanical movements of any kind, such as wheels and hammer mills, continuous rolling carts and rising balloons, but also the surprisingly diverse actions and movements of men and animals are shown. They can also be used according to the same principle by other mechanical devices, even sedate activities, such as theatrical scenes in activity-conceived workshops [?], etc., with both transparent as well as the ordinary kind of drawn pictures. For two years, from 7 May.(Jb Polytechnic. Inst Vol 19, 406f., Zit. In [1])7

The stroboskop (stroboscope) was developed by the Viennese art dealers Trentsensky & Vieweg and commercially marketed. Mathias Trentsensky had been named in the 'imperial privelege' (patent); see above. The first edition was published in February 1833 and was soon sold out.8

Stampfer's first set of six discs had round viewing holes. Details of the subjects for this first set remain elusive at present. William Carpenter (1868) illustrates a single example of a Stampfer disc with round holes. The subject, wheels and mechanical hammers, is identical to one in Stampfer's second set.

Stampfer disc from first series,     
with round viewing holes      
(The Projection Box)

In July the second, improved edition appeared, comprising 16 subjects printed back-to-back on 8 discs. These are listed and illustrated by Mannoni (1996)9:

1. Geometric design with triangles and wheels
2. Geometric design with triangles and wheels
3. Coloured balls on gyroscope + series of wheels and rays
4. Series of wheels and spokes
5. Series of toothed wheels
6. Mechanical hammer
7. Fragments of letters forming the word OPTIK
8. Fragments of wheels and spokes that form during the rotation of the disc
9. Man sawing
10. Man marching in a circle, with star
11. Turk launching balls in the air
12. Dancing couple and fiddle player
13. Cavalier playing the horn
14. Man on velocipede
15. Woman pumping water
16. Roundabout with four horsemen 10

Stampfer disc      
Cavalier playing the horn      
(Kunstuniversität Linz)

This second set was also published in England, by Joseph Myers & Co., London.

A further set of 16 subjects on 8 discs, 14 of which are illustrated by Mannoni (1996), was manufactured in Britain by James Black (Woolwich, London) and distributed by Charles Tilt, (Fleet Street, London). Some subjects were the same as those in the previous set; many were different.

In 1849 Stampfer was awarded the Knight's Cross of His Most High Order of Leopold, after which he was called Simon Ritter von Stampfer.11

A confusion of names

The name of the device as arranged by Plateau has a bewilderingly complex history. In Plateau's first paper, 'On a New Type of Optical Illusion', his toy has no name; only in a later paper is the name phénakisticope introduced; a widely adopted but corrupted version, since cope should be scope, meaning 'view'.12 It is not clear which Parisian printer-publisher introduced the name, but Francois-Simon-Alphonse-Giroux (d.1848), whose shop in Paris sold Chinese shadow theatres and kaleidoscopes, was soon selling them. In 1833 he applied for 5-year 'import licence' for the device. Le phenakisticope sets sold by Giroux included a mirror, separate shutter disc, and 12 picture discs - dancers, leaping frog, woodcutter, windmill, etc.13

Plateau and Ackermann

Joseph Plateau drew some pictures for the discs himself, and Jean-Baptiste Madou (1796-1877), a Belgian artist friend of Plateau, was apparently asked to design pictures for several. Plateau was not associated with the 'phenakisticop[e]s' being published in Paris, but gave his instructions and designs to a colleague who took them to London.14

In the summer of 1833 Joseph Ackermann & Co. published the first set in England. The Phantasmascope, with six discs and credited to 'Professor Plateau', featured subjects inspired by Plateau-Madou designs.15

Dancing monkey [?] A hand-painted disc;      
the subject was later re-coloured and      
printed in Ackermann's first set      
(Ghent University) Animation Bekkha Walker

Ackermann's First Set

Pirouetting male dancer
Concentric spiral of discs
Dancing monkey and streamers
Death-head emerging from centre
Serpent disappearing over edge
Frogs (centre: moving grass)16
The creature described in lists as a dancing money looks to me more like the ghoul or death-head pictured in another disc from this series, and illustrated and described below. The narrow images around the periphery allow for more phases than usual (20) and therefore smoother animation. The version shown here is the hand-painted example in the Science Museum, University of Ghent. When this subject was published by Ackermann, the creature was given a blue jacket.

A second set, the Fantascope, was by the young artist - later architect - Thomas Talbot Bury (1811-1877),17 whose drawings of buildings were already being published as prints by Ackermann.


Fantascope set by T.T. Bury,      
published by Ackermann      
(Christies, London)

Bury Set

Woman beating husband (centre: squirrel)
Turkish Juggler
Man on velocipede
Horse jumping through hoop (centre: acrobat)
Dancing couple (centre: drummer)
Bell ringer

A third set from Ackermann (also entitled 'Fantascope') soon followed, created by noted watercolour artist / lithographer Thomas Mann Baynes (1794-1854) whose artworks, often published as prints, include a panorama of the River Thames. Late in 1833, using the term 'Fantascope, or Optical Delusions', Ackermann advertised sets of discs at 14 shillings (original series), 12 shillings (Bury) and 10s. (Baynes), with the Looking-Glass and Box at 8s. 18

Baynes Set

Swallow in flight
Dancing couple
Man eating, and dog jumping at table
Rats emerging from centre and disappearing over edge
Cat chasing bird
Boy on rocking borse (centre: child rope-jumping)


Escape from the disc world

An ingenious trick by Plateau (or Madou) allows the creatures to break free from their limited platter. In the first Ackermann set green snakes emerge from the centre and slither upwards and over the top of the disc; the cardboard perimeter having been specially cut, forming the necessary bumps to accommodate the snakes' bodies as they slither over the edge. The repetitious reptiles appear to have a physical presence, escaping from the confines of the medium into the real world.19 This clever development was taken up by Thomas Baynes, who drew two subjects with the same technique; one featuring scurrying rats, and another a cat chasing a bird.20


Spiralling ghoul or death head      
Published by Ackermann      
(Ghent University)

Plateau's masterpiece

A similar spiralling example (from the first Ackermann set) but without the 'over the edge' trick shows what David Robinson has called 'Plateau's masterpiece .... demonic green death heads appear to emerge from an infinite hole, growing larger as they approach and pass the viewer. As a piece of Gothic horror it compares with the Phantasmagorian showpieces of Plateau's fellow-countryman, Etienne Robertson.'21 Two other Plateau discs are listed by Dorikens (2001), from 'other sources' - publisher not established. These include one of the most extraordinary of the Plateau / Madou animations, the face of an attractive young lady changes by degrees into a bulbous-nosed old hag, and finally into a grotesque horned and tusked devil. Subtle colouring enhances this startling metamorphic picture. The other is 'Dragon with red ball'.22

Madou / Plateau translucent disc      
(Ghent University)      

Plateau discs at Media Archaeology      


Translucent discs

Plateau and Madou made at least two technically very unusual discs, which were translucent. Maurice Doriklens describes how

...Madou drew the first image. Then, with great care, Plateau developed all the others... The devil blows into a fire. The harder he blows, the more the fire flares up and the more his head is lit. [In the second example] The monk walks through a colonnade holding a torch. As he emerges behind a pillar the collonade is lit, until he disappears behind the next pillar.

Professor Dorikens explains that these two discs, the only two of their kind known, incorporate a certain amount of image compression, and were intended to be viewed in Plateau's other disc machine, the anorthoscope, and viewed with a light placed behind the picture disc.23

Singular or plural?

It's difficult to be consistent when describing the subjects for phenakistiscope discs and zoetrope strips, with regard to the use of singular and plural nouns. In film/digital animation a subject that appears in successive frames, say a frog, is generally referred to in the singular ('The frog jumps'), because ultimately we see, when the film is shown, just one frog, and in discussing a strip of the film with multiple images we tend to speak of 'the frog'. With the same animation on a phenakistiscope / stroboscope disc or zoetrope strip we see a multitude of frogs in action when we view the pictures in motion, so tend to speak of 'the frogs' - but there is little consistency when such subjects are written about. (See also: Complexities of Zoetrope Motion.)

Unidentified disc with five phases;     
Stampfer disc with eight slots


Design constraints

Plateau's original subject of a slim dancer pirouetting - a subject with a height much greater than its width - was ideal for the shape of a disc periphery, allowing a large drawing of each phase, and 16 slots. However, with other subjects, such as a horse and rider, the wider ratio caused problems. If a reasonable number of phases was to be included, each drawing would be very small, and much of the centre part of the disc would be blank.

Very soon, compromises were made for such subjects; fewer slots (and fewer phases in each sequence) could be used. Stampfer's early disc showing a woman pumping water, a square-ish image, had only 8 phases / slots, compared with 11, 12, or 13 for other discs in the same set featuring abstract designs, and as few as 5 or as many as 20 slots with subjects by other publishers, depending of the width requirement for the subject.

Separate animation in the centre      
Giroux, France      
(The Kodak Collection at the          
National Media Museum, Bradford)          

One way to tackle the problem of filling the available space was to make an extra, separate sequence (or sequences) of an entirely different animation in the centre part of the disc. This multi-subject arrangement was adopted in 1833 by both Ackermann (Britain), and Giroux (France). Alternatively, a subject could emerge from the centre of the disc and travel or spiral outwards to the edge, using all of the space.

Another way to use all of the disc's surface was, for instance, by having a juggler throw his juggling balls high into the air (Giroux, 1833); or a circus rider could leap from horse to lofty trapese; or a bellringer near the disc centre could ring a bell set high up near the edge (Fuhri, 1840).24

Optical distortion

There were imperfections in the results achieved with the phenakistiscope, relating to: curvature [see: Faraday's Wheel]; and width distortion [see: zoetrope]. But even at this early stage, great imagination was shown in the use of the new medium's potential. Elements of an image would be made to move in different directions at different speeds, as explained by George Hall, on the Zoetrope Animation Categorization page (forthcoming).

Part two

Stephen Herbert 2013. Not to be reproduced in any medium without written permission.

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1. The Spelling Class, Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, (NSW Australia) 8 January 1891, p 2. This version, and at least on other similar, had appeared in various periodicals since at least 1876. "↩"

2. For Francois Binetruy, Richard Balzer, and Thomas Weynants web addresses see References, below. "↩"

3. The Bridgewater Treatises in the Power Wisdom and Goodness of God as manifested in the creation. Treatise V. Vol. 2. Animal and Vegetable Physiology Considered with reference to natural theology. Peter Mark Roget, London: William Pickering 1834. Page 524, n. "↩"

4. For these web addresses, see the LINKS page. [forthcoming] "↩"

5. For the best accounts of the relationships, correspondence, etc., between Plateau, Faraday, Stampfer and their circle, see: Robinson 2001, and Mannoni 2000. "↩"

6. Illustrated in Dorikens, 2001, and on Thomas Weynants's website. "↩"

7. '1920. S. Stampfer, Professor am k. k. polytechnischen Institute in Wien. (Wieden, Nro. 64), und Mathias Trentsensky; auf die Erfindung, Figuren und farbige Formen, überhaupt Bilder jeder Art, nach mathematischen und physischen Gesetzen so zu zeichnen, dass, wenn dieselben mit gehöriger Schnelligkeit durch irgend einen Mechanismus vor dem Auge vorbeigeführt werden, während der Lichtstrahl beständig unterbrochen wird, die mannigfaltigsten optischen Täuschungen in zusammenhängenden Bewegungen und Handlungen dem Auge sich darstellen, und wobei diese Bilder am einfachsten auf Scheiben von Pappe oder irgend einem andern zweckmä igen Materiale gezeichnet werden, an deren Peripherie Löcher zum Durchsehen angebracht sind.

Wenn diese Scheiben, einem Spiegel gegenüber, schnell um ihre Achsen gedreht werden, so zeigen sich dem Auge beim Durchsehen durch die Löcher die belebten Bilder im Spiegel, und es können auf diese Weise nicht nur Maschinen-Bewegungen jeder Art, z. B. Räder und Hammerwerke, fortrollende Wägen und steigende Ballons, sondern auch die verschiedenartigsten Handlungen und Bewegungen von Menschen und Thieren überraschend dargestellt werden. Auch lassen sich nach demselben Prinzipe durch andere mechanische Vorrichtungen selbst zusammengesetztere Handlungen, z. B. theatralische Szenen, in Thätigkeit begriffene Werkstätten etc., sowohl durch transparente als auch nach gewöhnlicher Art gezeichnete Bilder darstellen. Auf zwei Jahre; vom 7. Mai.'

Jb. Polytechn. Inst. Bd. 19, 406f. Cited in: Simon Stampfers Stroboskopische Scheiben , at: http://www.specula.at/adv/monat_0108.htm "↩"

8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_von_Stampfer. "↩"

9. Mannoni, 1996, 261-266. "↩"

10. Further discs attributed to Stampfer can be found. Details to follow. "↩"

11. His creation of the words 'stroboscopic discs' ultimately became known outside of Austria and in retrospect the 'stroboscopic effect' is named by him. "↩"

12. Plateau, Joseph. 1833. Sur un nouveau genre d'illusion d'optique [On a new type of optical illusion] 20 Jan. Published shortly afterwards in Correspondance Mathématique et Physique, with an engraving of a disc with pirouetting dancer.
Plateau J. 1833. Des illusions d'optique sur lesquelles se fonde le petit appareil appelé récemment Phénakisticope. Anales de Chimie et de Physique de Paris, 53, 304-308.

13. Giroux was the official restorer of Notre Dame Cathedral, and Alphonse Giroux's company later made the first production cameras for Louis Daguerre. "↩"

14. Quintelet, details to follow. "↩"

15. Mannoni (trans. Crangle) 2000, 221 "↩"

16. The last subject even included a realistic animated shadow as the frogs jump. "↩"

17. Richard Balzer Collection. "↩"

18. London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c., no.874, 19 October 1833. "↩"

19. Illustrated in Robinson, 1991, p. 40 "↩"

20. The rats subject was evidently copied by other publishers, including the artists producing discs for Fores's Moving Panorama or Optical illusions and perhaps the snakes and cat were too. "↩"

21. David Robinson. 1990. Animation The First Chapter 1833-1893. "↩"

22. The last two are both illustrated, animated, here: [forthcoming] "↩"

23. Dorikens, 2001, 168. "↩"

24. The publishers cited were not necessarily the first to use these techniques. "↩"


[advert.] The Scotsman, 28 September 1833, p.1 ['magic disc' phenakistiscope]; 12 October 1833, p.3 ['Cheapest edition of the phenakisticope']

[advert.] London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c., 19 October 1833, no.874.

[advert.] Manchester Guardian, 26 October 1833, p.1 [Ackermann Phantascope, with prices.]

Barnes, John. 1985. Inventing the Cinema. The Photographic Collector, Vol.5 No.2., 134-141.

Baudelaire, Charles Pierre. 1853. Morale due joujou, in Monde litteraire 17 April 1853.

Boys, C.V. 1896. Soap Bubbles and the sources which mould them, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London.

Cook, Olive. 1963. Movement in Two Dimensions. London: Hutchinson.

Dolbear Amos Emerson. 1877. Persistence of Vision, The Stroboscope, in: The Art of Projecting. A Manual of Experimenation in physics, chemistry, and natural history with the porte lumiere and magic lantern. New York. [Hecht, entry 285]

Dorikens, Maurice. 2001. Joseph Plateau 1801-1833 Living between Art and Science.

Füsslin, Georg. 1993. Optisches Spielzeug Oder Wie Die Bilder Laufen Lernten. Stuttgart: Füsslin. [Colour illustrations, including Muller disc].

Hayes, M. A. 1876. The Delineation of Animals in rapid Motion [Pamphlet of a paper read before the Royal Dublin Society in 1876].

Hecht, Hermann (ed. Ann Hecht). 1993. Pre-Cinema History. London: Bawker-Saur and BFI.

Mannoni, Laurent. 2010. Les disques stroboscopiques et magiques de Simon Stampfer. in: Dorikens, Maurice. 2001. Joseph Plateau 1801-1833 Living between Art and Science, 235-241, and 224.

Mannoni, Laurent. 2000. Pirouette of the Dancer, in The Great Art of Light and Shadow (Trans. Crangle) University of Exeter Press.

Mannoni, Laurent. 1996. Le mouvement continué Paris: Mazzotta / Cinématheque française. [Many colour illustrations by numerous publishers, and printing plates by Pearson.]

Newhall, Beaumont. 1952. The Horse in Gallop, in: M. Deutelbaum (1979) 'Image' on the Art and Evolution of the Film, Dover, New York. [About L. Wachter].

Paris J.A. 1857. 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. London: John Murray.

Piusano-Basile. 2010. Jan Evangelista Purkyne: La stroboscopic au service de l'enseignment. In: Dorikens, Maurice. 2001. Joseph Plateau 1801-1833 Living between Art and Science, 250-252 and 242.

Plateau, Joseph. 1833. Sur un nouveau genre d'illusion d'optique [On a new type of optical illusion] 20 Jan. [Published shortly afterwards in Correspondance Mathematique et Physique, Vol.7, p.365 with an engraving of a disc with pirouetting dancer.]

Plateau J. 1833. Des illusions [optiques] sur lesquelles se fonde le petit appareil appelé récemment Phénakisticope Anales de Chimie et de Physique de Paris, 53, 304-308.

Robinson, David. Plateau, Faraday and their spinning discs. In: Dorikens, Maurice. 2001. Joseph Plateau 1801-1833 Living between Art and Science,265-270.

Robinson, David. 1991. Masterpieces of Animation 1833-1908, le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone [detailed facts and colour illustrations].

Robinson, David. 1990. Animation The First Chapter 1833-1893, in: Sight and Sound Vol. 59 1990, 251-254.

Sang, Edward. On the toothing of un-round discs which are intended to roll upon each other. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, volume 28, 1877, 191-195. [For other papers by Sang, see notes].

[website, Francois Binetruy] http://binetruy.org/1279.html?&L=1

[L'Orangerie. Optical toys, including rare phenakistiscopes.]

[website, Richard Balzer] http://www.dickbalzer.com/

[Optical toys, including rare phenakistiscopes.]

[website, Thomas Weynants] http://www.visual-media.be/

[Optical toys, including rare phenakistiscopes.]


Allmer, Franz. 1996. Simon Stampfer 1790-1864. Picture a life. In: Communications of the Geodetic Institute of the Technical University of Graz, No. 82, Graz 1996

Formann, William. 1966. Austrian pioneers of cinematography. Wien: Bergland Verlag, p. 10-18.

production notes
[Tableaux Animes - Nouveau Phenakisticope - fusselin p34]

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