Zoetropes and the Persistence of Vision

Article excerpt

Going to the movies or watching Saturday morning cartoons has become a fixture of contemporary American life, but have you ever stopped to contemplate how those "moving" images on film are conveyed to our eyes and brain? The movement that we see on film is actually a series of still images, every image separated from the next by brief spaces of darkness. When still images and dark spaces are shown in rapid succession, the eye ignores the dark spaces, fills in the action between the stills, and tricks us into seeing movement.

This illusion of pictures that seem to move occurs because the human brain remembers images slightly longer than the eye sees them. The principle is known as persistence of vision. Identification of persistence of vision can be traced to experiments by Newton and later to nineteenth-century Belgian scientist, Joseph Plateau. Scientific toys based upon the principle were developed in the early 1800s, but public fascination did not begin until the Victorian era. Toys such as the zoetrope became especially popular during this time.

William George Homer invented the first zoetrope in 1834. A simple animation viewing device, the zoetrope is little more than a black drum with evenly spaced slits cut around the top edge. A narrow strip of paper with images drawn on it is placed inside the drum. When the drum is spun, what appears to be an animated scene can be seen through the slits.

This lesson deals with creating a zoetrope and zoetrope strips to demonstrate the process of animating still images and the principle of persistence of vision.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

* Conscientiously explore scientific principles of animation.

* Thoughtfully contemplate how animation communicates ideas.

* Reflect upon connections between the visual arts and other disciplines.

* What is animation?

* How does animation communicate ideas?

* How can science concepts be shown through animation?

Materials and Resources

* heavy stock black paper

* pencils, rulers, scissors, craft knives, glue, drinking straws

* 12 1/2" x 1 1/4" (31.8 x 3.2 cm) strips white paper

* fine- or medium-tip black markers

* teacher-made example of a zoetrope and several zoetrope strips

Introduction and Motivation

Using teacher-made or commercially available zoetropes and zoetrope strips, demonstrate how a series of still images can appear to move. Provide background information about animation and early animation toys. Discuss contemporary animation and how it is has changed or remained the same during the previous century.


Technology has made tremendous advances since the inception of simple animation toys of the 1800s; however, the underlying scientific concepts remain constant. Exploring how the mind and eye work in tandem to create the illusion of movement from still images provides opportunities for students to discover how artists use science concepts to great advantage.


Look into the photography of Eadweard Muybridge. How did Muybridge convey movement?

Research and report about other scientific animation toys such as the thaumatrope, kineograph, mutoscope, praxinoscope, or zoopraxiscope.

Activity: Make a Zoetrope

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