What’s a zoetrope?

Before Eadweard Muybridge (English, 1830–1904) began systematically studying animal locomotion with his camera in 1877, understanding of how horses and other animals moved at faster gaits was tenuous at best. The series of photographs Muybridge produced allowed sporting artists to more accurately portray their subjects.

Eadweard Muybridge (English, 1830-1904), Horse and Rider, 1878, c. 1890 collotype, 19 x 24 1/8 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Judith & Jo Tartt, Jr. Photography Collection

Muybridge also explored ways to portray motion by combining photographs of different stages of action and displaying them together. He came up with a device known as a “zoöpraxiscope” in 1879. The zoöpraxiscope featured a disc with several images painted on to it, showing different stages of motion. A projector light was shone through the disc, and the shadows cast on the wall by the images as the disc was spun seemed to bring the pictures to life.

Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope and disc Zoopraxiscope [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

W.E. Lincoln’s U.S. Patent No. 64,117 of Apr. 23, 1867, W.E. Lincoln [Public domain]

The zoöpraxiscope was difficult to produce, so another moving picture device called a “zoetrope” was more popular. This is a cylindrical device with images printed on the inside. When the device is spun and viewed through the slats, or “apertures,” the pictures form the moving image. Your eyes can’t perceive each picture fast enough to see them individually, but the “blanks” interspersed in between tell your brain that each picture is separate. Your brain and your eyes compromise and put together a moving picture that satisfies both. This is called the “Phi phenomenon,” and it only works if you view each image for less than 1/10th of a second. Any slower, and your eyes would be able to perceive each picture separately. Modern movies and videos work in a very similar manner; a series of images, called “frames,” cycle through the screen at around 60 frames per second. Some higher quality displays can display 300 frames per second!

NSLMology: The Science of Sporting Art, on view through September 15, 2019, features a zoetrope building station, but you can make one at home too! Download the pattern and instructions to make a zoetrope of a galloping racehorse.

Instagram post from April 27, 2019 Family Day showing a completed zoetrope

Be sure to stop by the museum and visit NSLMology: The Science of Sporting Art to learn more about motion and zoetropes, as well as ecology, weather, chemistry, and color theory. There are lots more zoetropes to try, including one with Muybridge’s Gentleman Jumping!

Cynthia Kurtz is the Spring 2019 Curatorial Intern at the National Sporting Museum and Library. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Museum Studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and graduated cum laude from Tulane University with a degree in Classical Literature in 2016. When not at the museum she can likely be found with her beloved horse Splash.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s