From Daedaleum to Zoetrope,

' ... the most wonderful antics that ever a nightmare invented to puzzle the brain.'1

daedaleum, Devil's Wheel, mimoscope, Wheel of Life, wundertrommel, zoëtrope, zoetrop, zootrop, zootrope.2

And also, with amusement rife, A 'Zoetrope, or Wheel of Life'.
Captain Reece, W.S. Gilbert, 1868 3

The 19th-century zoetrope has always been a key device in writings about the subject still known by the unhelpful term 'pre-cinema'. In its most common form the zoetrope is a drum of metal or cardboard comprising a number of vertical slots, usually thirteen, and containing around its lower inner circumference a strip of paper with a sequence of printed drawings representing a scene in motion. The drum is mounted on a stand with a central vertical spindle, and set spinning by hand. When the pictures are viewed through the slots the phi phenomenon produces an illusion of movement, and the scene appears to come to life.

In recent years, the study of the zoetrope and its spinning-disc predecessor the phenakistiscope has resulted in such perceptive and carefully researched papers as Circularity and Repetition at the Heart of the Attraction: Optical Toys and the Emergence of a New Cultural Series.4 In general, however, historical information is scattered, and there are many inaccuracies in both printed sources and online resources. This essay attempts to give a concise outline of the main facts concerning the early history of the zoetrope and its effects, and includes the results of research into the first patentee, early marketing, the use of satirical images, and the hitherto unknown exploitation as an audience device for fundraising. Work is ongoing.5

Plateau's 1828 disque à créneaux       

Devil's Wheel, 13th century manuscript.      
(Bibliothèque municipale de Toulouse, Ms 815, fol. 59v)       

Part of a page from Horner's paper, showing       
the complexity of the mathematics involved.








The first moving image devices to use multiple sequential images - the apparent movement created by a fast-changing series of pictures depicting incremental degrees of an action - were the phenakistiscope of Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau (1801-1883), and the stroboscopic discs of Austrian geometrician Simon Ritter von Stampfer (1790 [or '92]-1864).6 The disc form evolved into the drum form, becoming the device now known as the zoetrope.7

Horner's daedaleum

Plateau's investigations into visual perception had included, in 1828, a device similar to Faraday's wheel, which had slots forming segments in the outer rim of the blank disc, for apparently freezing the motion when these segments were viewed through the slots of the spinning disc; but now arranged with the disc horizontal, and rectangular segments arranged vertically.8 Just when the first sets of slotted picture-discs were appearing from print sellers and publishers in Europe's cities, the possibility of using a similar slotted drum to view animated sequences was suggested by Stampfer.9

The concept was investigated in detail in 1834 by English mathematician William George Horner (1786-1837).10 Interested in mirrors and optical experimentation,11 Horner became aware of Plateau's phenakistiscope and described a variant, a drum containing a sequence of drawings, each picture slightly different from the next; a combination of Plateau's 1828 disque à créneaux and the sequence pictures of the phenakistiscope and Stampfer's stroboscope. The shallow drum was set spinning, and the images viewed through equidistant slots set around the circumference, taking advantage of the phi phenomenon to produce an illusion of movement. He named it the daedaleum (not daedalum or daedatelum): 'as imitating the practice which the celebrated artist of antiquity [Daedalus] was fabled to have invented, of creating figures of men and animals endued with motion'.12

Some modern references give 'Wheel of the Devil', incorrectly, as a translation for daedaleum, perhaps because Daedalus translates as 'cunning one' - also a colloquial reference to Lucifer. Devil's Wheel or Wheel of the Devil may once have been a popular name for the device, but the earliest usage found is by motion picture historian Earl Theisen in 1933.13 Another possible reason, if indeed the name was used at all, is that some popular strips showed devil figures.

Self contained

Whereas the phenakistiscope / stroboscope disc needed to be viewed by reflection, or through the slots of a second disc, Horner's daedaleum was 'capable of being performed without a mirror or any second instrument'.14 Drawings were to be made on the surfaces between the apertures, precluding the use of a continuous paper strip. Unlike the phenakistiscope, it was not necessary to peer closely into the slots. The device when revolving had 'all the effect of transparency, the phaenomenon may be displayed with full effect to a numerous audience'.15 Horner also noted something that seems to defy common sense experience. 'wherever the observer is placed, whether near the cylinder or remote from it, all the objects depicted on the inner surface of the cylinder [not half the number, as would be expected] are visible to him at one and the same time. This is a highly paradoxical phaenomenon...'16 So - what Lincoln is saying is that if we have a strip of 13 images, when viewed in the zoetrope half of them are, at any one time, facing away from the person viewing. However, that person will see in the spining drum at one moment in time, a sequence of 13 images in movement.

As with Plateau and Stampfer's devices, figures appeared distorted when viewed in motion. With the phenakistiscope, (pictures spinning in the same direction as the slots), figures appeared fat. With the daedaleum, (pictures spinning in the opposite direction to the slots), figures would appear thin. Horner gives mathematical explanations for the daedaleum's anorthoscopic distortion effects, advising that 'all figures and objects depicted should be considerably exaggerated in breadth, nearly in the proportion of 2 to 1...' to compensate.17 He then explains that if the drawings are continued onto the horizontal disc (the 'base') and towards the centre, effects of curvature will also be seen. At least one model was commissioned to Horner's specifications, by a Bristol optician, Mr. King Jnr.18

There was some early scientific use of the device. In 1836, Wilhelm Weber (1804-1891) and Eduard Weber (1806-1871) published a study, Mechanics of the Walking Apparatus, suggesting that readers draw images of the different phases of walking, in accordance with their theory, and place these images inside a rotating slotted drum to see a perfect walking motion.19

Czermak's stereophoroskop    

Developments in the 1850s and '60s

There was little further response to Horner's improvement on the devices of Plateau and Stampfer, and the phenakistiscope and stroboscope discs remained the standard method of viewing motion-picture drawings for more than three decades.20 The 1850s and '60s saw many experimental attempts to produce motion picture devices for viewing series photographs, mostly stereoscopic sequences; some of these stereotrope designs incorporating elements that would later appear in the commercial zoetrope.21 The 1855 stereophoroskop proposed by Bohemian physiologist Johann Nepomuk Czermak (1828-1873), was a device that used both slots and a central 'prism' of mirrors for viewing stereoscopic sequence drawings or photographs; a step in the evolution of the praxinoscope.22

Loncoln's US patent, 1867, illustrating      
the use of a paper disc on the 'floor'      
of the drum, as well as a strip.      

In 1860 Peter Hubert Desvignes of Lewisham, Kent, devised and patented a number of variations on the motion-sequence viewer, including a stereoscopic drum version arranged with a horizontal axis.23 At least one of Desvignes' designs, which he called the Mimoscope, was shown at the 1862 International Exhibition in London (exhibit 2895), where it gained an Honourable Mention for 'ingenuity of construction'.24 The exhibition catalogue describes it as being able to 'exhibit drawings, models, single or stereoscopic photographs, so as to animate animal movements, or that of machinery, showing various other illusions.'25 One account even mentions insects being used, and notes that the device was 'furnished with pictures of exquisite artistic finish and beauty.'26 The inventor had overcome the problem noted by Horner, that the figures would appear thin and squashed up; 'In the exquisitely elaborate drawings prepared by Mr. Desvignes, this compression was allowed for, to the great enhancement of the effect.'27

In 1864 a device by Scottish mechanic James Laing for viewing stereoscopic animated photographs was demonstrated. The Motoroscope used a long belt running between two vertical rollers, with both slots and stereoscopic lenses, but an earlier experiment had made use of a drum-form apparatus; Laing had abandoned this as the short series of images was too limited.28

Of the drum-form device given the name zoetrope, Laurent Mannoni notes: 'There were numerous patents for this apparatus: the American Henry Watson Hallett ([British], 6 March 1867), his compatriot William Lincoln ([American] 23 April 1867), and the Englishman Charles W. May (French patent ... 14 May 1867.)'.29 It may not be irrelevant, given these patent dates beginning March 1867, that the British patent of P.H. Desvignes had become void at the end of February that same year, that is just a week earlier, due to non-payment of the additional stamp duty of 100 pounds.

William E. Lincoln in later life      
(The Projection Box)


William Lincoln and the Milton Bradley Company

The name by which the device became widely known is first seen in the patent for the first commercial form, granted to William E. Lincoln (1847-c.1940) of Providence, Rhode Island (23 April 1867): Zoëtrope - zoo: 'life', trope: 'to turn' - usually taken to mean 'wheel of life'.30 The patent is dated 23 April 1867, when Lincoln was not yet twenty years old. Until 2007 nothing was known about Lincoln, but recent research has revealed the basic story, in his own words, of how the zoetrope came to the market. His father a Professor, and being educated in the classics himself, 'when there was still a belief that Latin and Greek were necessary to an education', the coining of a name in Greek would have been natural to Lincoln. The toy was devised in 1865 while he was still a sophomore at Brown University. He had access to practical experiments, later remembering that 'in the basement and first floor of Rhode Island Hall ... a small wheel driven by an electric battery was occasionally made to buzz with the comment that it was a most interesting experiment that could never be of any practical use'.31

Milton Bradley flyer      
(Courtesy Martin Gilbert)

Milton Bradley advertising card, c.1860s.      
(Courtesy Lester Smith)

The Grecian Bend, from a period pamphlet     
(Courtesy New York History Society)

Celarius Waltz, zoetrope strip       
(National Media Museum, Bradford)

The definitive zoetrope

Of his own invention, Lincoln recalled that 'As an optical instrument it was defective since the side of the cylinder next the observer moved in one direction and the opposite side in the reverse direction, doubling and distorting the figures, but it had the practical value that quite a crowd could see and be amused at the same time'. The young Lincoln obtained advice from a local bookstore owner, and sent a model to the Milton Bradley Company, lithography specialists and a major games producer still active today.

William Ensign Lincoln's definitive form of the zoetrope, with the strip placed below the slots, was taken up and was soon being marketed.32 Illustrated in the original patent but not always exploited in later versions were paper discs for the zoetrope base, providing further animations.33 The new toy, with a 13-slot pasteboard drum, was mass produced under license, and Lincoln later stated, apparently none too happily, (there were rumours that it had made him a large fortune) that he'd received 'barely 5,000 dollars' - a tidy sum.34

In 1930 Lincoln recalled, 'the model at the patent office in Washington was for a long time used to amuse visitors' and 'After the patent expired, small zoetropes were used for paper collar boxes.'35 Although the year of introduction is usually given as 1867, new research shows that it was available in some outlets for the Christmas market, 1866.36

In 1868 the company offered '73 different scenes'.37 One strip was advertised as being available separately, for 25 cents by mail: 'illustrating the progress of the "Grecian Bend." A fashionable lady turns into a camel!' The Grecian Bend - the new craze of a large bustle designed into ladies' dresses - was the subject of a song, cartoons in satirical periodicals, and even a magic lantern slide.38 The Milton Bradley strip is a rare, perhaps unique, example, of a Victorian zoetrope strip design featuring metamorphosis.

Zoetrope aesthetics

The aesthetic of the most effective zoetrope images is usually bold, with blocks of colour and heavy outlines. Fine detail would be lost due to the inevitable blurring of the viewed image. The palette for a single strip is often limited to one or two colours when reproduced by lithography; some have more colours, sometimes applied by hand. Many of the characters depicted have black faces; in part for optical reasons, the black-white contrast ensuring clarity, but also for the usual purpose of exploiting racial stereotypes for amusement.

Other subjects include mechanisms with meshing gears and eccentric levers - their repetitious action ideally suiting the nature of the medium - including an envelope-making machine, at that time cutting-edge technology. One odd 'invention' shows a face being fed by a mechanical arm. Many sequences, by various manufacturers, have this surreal quality of a world populated by bizarre creatures tirelessly repeating energetic but unresolved actions. One strip depicts a man sheltering beneath an umbrella during a shower of forks; a visualization of the American saying 'It's raining pitchforks'. Waltzing couples, appearing to twirl voluminously through space, demonstrate the dimensional kinetic possibilities of these short animations.

The Zoetrope Part Two



1. Our London Letter, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 February 1868, 7. "↩"

2. An umlaut was used in the first patent by Lincoln, and is sometimes used in the various spellings. "↩"

3. Captain Reece Verse 6:
  Then currant wine and ginger pops
  Stood handily on all the "tops";
  And, also, with amusement rife,
  A "Zoetrope, or Wheel of Life."
W.S. Gilbert, 1868. Fun, n.s., VI (8 February).
Another verse by Gilbert, in which 19th-century scientific devices and attractions become musical instruments, is The Story of Prince Agib, Verse 3:
  Of Agib, who could readily, at sight,
  Strum a march upon the loud Theodolite.
    He would diligently play
    On the Zoetrope all day
  And blow the gay Pantechnicon all night. (Gilbert n.d., 115.)

4. Circularity and Repetition at the Heart of the Attraction: Optical Toys and the Emergence of a New Cultural Series (Dulac and Gaudreault 2007). See also the excellent web essay by Chris Baraniuk, "The Wheel of the Devil": On Vine, gifs and the power of the loop, on the website The Machine Starts:

5. The work of Dr. John Plunkett provides examples of such contextualization in the wider field of 19th-century optical entertainments.

6. For a detailed account of the development of the phenakistiscope and anorthoscope, see: Mannoni 2000, Ch.8. "↩"

7. It is sometimes stated that a 'zoetrope' was created in China around 180 AD by the inventor Ting Huan. Driven by convection, Ting Huan's device hung over a lamp and was called "The Pipe Which Makes Fantasies Appear." However, this was actually an early version of the shadow cylinder device later known as the lanterne tournant, and did not produce a moving image by substitution of similar pictures in a series, so cannot reasonably be called a zoetrope. "↩"

8. 'Sur les apparences que présentenent deux lignes qui tournent autour d'un point, avec un mouvement angulaire uniforme, extrait d'une letter addressée au rédacteur par M. Plateau.' Correspondance mathématique et physique, Vol. 4, 393-396. "↩"

9. Stampfer, 1833. "↩"

10. McConnell 2004. "↩"

11. See, for example, Horner's 1815 paper 'New and important Combinations with the Camera Lucida', which he praises its inventor Wollaston, who would later be one of those present at the conception of the thaumatrope. The Annals of Philosophy, v.6 1815 Jul-Dec., p.281-283. "↩"

12. Horner 1834, 37. "↩"

13. Theisen 1933, reprinted in Fielding 1979, 84. "↩"

14. Horner 1834, 36-37. "↩"

15. Horner 1834, 37. "↩"

16. Horner 1834, 38. "↩"

17. Horner 1834, 39. "↩"

18. Horner 1834, 41 "↩"

19. Weber and Weber 1836, 426. "↩"

20. The continuing use of the phenakistiscope disc, for both direct viewing and for projection of motion sequences of both drawings and photographs, runs parallel to (and is sometimes very closely integrated with) the development of the drum form device, at least until the invention of cinematography. For the purposes of this essay however, the zoetrope is considered as a separate subject. A companion essay on the phenakistiscope is in preparation. "↩"

21. see: Gosser 1977; Shaw 1860. "↩"

22. Czermak, Johann N. 1879. Das Stereophoroskop. 1855. In: Gesammelte Schriften, Erster Band: Wissenschaftliche Abhandlungen, 299-302. Leipzig: Wilhelm Engelmann. Czermak was greatly influenced by the work of physiologist Jan Evangelista Purkyne, who had created the phorolyt (later: kinesiscop) phenakistiscope device, initially for medical applications. "↩"

23. This was probably Peter Hubert Desvignes, (1804-1883), who was born in Constantinople, becoming naturalised in Britain in 1831, and who died in Lewisham, or his son, Peter H. Desvignes, born 1837. <

24. Anon. 1862, 201. "↩"

25. Hunt 1862, 181. "↩"

26. Chambers 1868, 777. "↩"

27. Chambers 1868, 778 "↩"

28. Laing 1864, 171-173. "↩"

29. Laurent Mannoni, (trans. And ed. Richard Crangle) 2000, 218. Hallett was apparently from Springfield, Massachusetts but gave a London address (8 Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane) at the time of this patent (British patent no. 629) and was acting on behalf of the Milton Bradley Company, so he may have been a patent agent - this address occurs quite often in relation to different patents - and this patent no doubt relates to Lincoln's device. Note that the English Milton Bradley patent was taken out before the American patent. Mannoni states that Charles W. May's version was marketed by French manufacturers Delacourt and Bakes. "↩"

30. April 23, 1867. US Patent 64117. 'William E. Lincoln, of Providence Rhode Island, assignor to Milton Bradley & Co., of Springfield, Massachusetts. ... a new and useful toy called the Zoëtrope.' "↩"

31. Lincoln 1930, ** "↩"

32. A number of Milton Bradley strips, and a photograph of their zoetrope, may be seen here: "↩"

33. Picture discs for the zoetrope base are illustrated in: Mannoni, Laurent. 1995, 77, 275-280. The complexity of the animation for these base discs is dealt with by George Hall in his booklet Zoetrope Renaissance (2010), and will be the subject of a future essay on this website. "↩"

34. Lincoln 1930, 60. "↩"

35. Lincoln 1930, 60. See, for example, Curtis, Theodore A. 1876 Patent (US 184847) [zoetrope as packaging]. Milton Bradley also patented the zoetrope in England, in March 1867 (Bradley 1867). Other early patents include that of W.W. Rose, (1867). A full international listing of zoetrope patents has yet to be made. "↩"

36. Anon. 1866, 1. "↩"

37. Bradley 1868, 375. "↩"

38. A silhouette long slide showing a metamorphosis from lady with bustle to camel, is in the Lester Smith collection. "↩"

Part Two

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