The Wheel of Life Polka
Pub: Robert Cocks & Co. : Ref: BD050440
(Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter)
Wheel of Life
An Introduction to the website.
What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' [Nietzsche, The Gay Science, 341]See a zoetrope in action
How simple they seem to be, and yet how complex they really are. The apparently obvious nature of optical toys such as the zoetrope, phenakistiscope, and thaumatrope has been one reason why so many historians of the moving image have glossed over them as quaint precursors to what really matters: cinema. A two-line description, and off we go with Edison and the Lumières. The designation 'toy' doesn't help, suggesting, with our modern take on the word, that these devices are trifles for children.
But look at this section of just one page from William Horner's technical description of the 'daedaleum', which later evolved into the zoetrope.
Visual perceptionAnd the complexity isn't limited to their mathematical aspect. The difficulties of understanding the perceptual processes involved in seeing what we see when we spin them still challenges those who have been professionals in the field of visual perception all their lives. The early attempts at trying to understand what's happening linger on in the most unlikely places as supposedly valid explanations. A section on this website will deal with the latest theories of motion perception in an accessible way.
Then there are the complexities of the social and personal relationships of the inventors and exploiters, largely unexplored until now. Why did Dr Paris seek to remain annonymous as the 'inventor' of the thaumatrope when it was first introduced, and why was Charles Babbage so upset with him? An essay will suggest possible reasons.
Who were they, and what does it all mean?And who were these people? It's well known that the first patentee of the zoetrope, which also gave the device its lasting name, was one William Lincoln. But who was Lincoln? You will meet him for the first time in the essay on the zoetrope, and learn the details of its initial commercial exploitation in his own words.
A giant wearing a crown forks up a bewigged barrister, who's carrying a sack, ready to gobble him up. What do these weird pictures actually mean? Find out, in the essay on the phenakistiscope.
This websiteI was already familiar with the zoetrope when I chanced upon the Barnes Museum of Cinematography, in 1971. Attracted by the spinning praxinoscope in the window, I paid my 20p and entered. My interest in the infinite world of visual delights that preceded the cinema was cemented by that visit. Since that time I have sought out, researched, reproduced, played with and lectured on many of the devices that appear on this website, and it's often been suggested to me that the subject would make a great book. It would, but it won't keep still. Every time I look, I see something new, and my brain keeps spinning with the difficulties of tying it all together and keeping up to date. So my research, complementing the stories and explanations already established by many others who have been fascinated by these objects of delight, will appear here instead. Academics have in the past two decades given us a lot of philosophising about what these devices mean, and especially about what they mean to us, as we entered, and as we now fully engage with, the digital age. Our present 'take' on these fascinating toys will, of course, eventually become the observations of a past generation; part of the historiography of the subject. But actual, and lasting, historical research has been fitful and incomplete. Our search can never end of course and we shall never know all of the stories and connections, but much of the original detail and context is out there still waiting to be found, and not enough people are looking. Subjects covered will include: motion perception; the world of animation techniques long before film cartoons; cultural and political references in Victorian optical toy artwork; optical toy commerce; and modern writing concerning the 19th-century sequential-image moving picture device.
These are not conventional, fixed academic or historical essays. They will grow and change, added to as new information emerges and new connections become clear, or fresh theories are developed, or corrections need to be made. To aid those who wish to cite the text, the URL of a particular page of an essay will remain the same, as a web page can grow in length if a paragraph or two needs to be added. It's my intention to number new notes as "a" and "b" additions to the original numbering, so notes that are cited will keep their original numbers. (This arrangement might have to change if things become unwieldy in the future.)
New material will be added at roughly monthly intervals. I hope you will find The Wheel of Life interesting.
Hastings, January 2013.The items represented on The Wheel of Life are historical artefacts illustrating the history of animated images. They are often anachronistic and can raise complex questions about the politics of representation. They do not in any way represent the views of the web site author.