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A zoetrope is a device that produces an illusion of action from a rapid succession of static pictures. The term zoetrope is from the Greek words zoe, "life" and trope, "turn". It may be taken to mean "wheel of life" or "living wheel."

It consists of a cylinder with slits cut vertically in the sides. Beneath the slits on the inner surface of the cylinder is a band which has either individual frames from a video/film or images from a set of sequenced drawings or photographs. As the cylinder spins the user looks through the slits at the pictures on the opposite side of the cylinder's interior. The scanning of the slits keeps the pictures from simply blurring together so that the user sees a rapid succession of images producing the illusion of motion, the equivalent of a motion picture. Cylindrical zoetropes have the property of causing the images to appear thinner than their actual sizes when viewed in motion through the slits.



The earliest elementary zoetrope was created in China around 180 AD by the prolific inventor Ting Huan (丁緩). Driven by convection Ting Huan's device hung over a lamp. The rising air turned vanes at the top from which were hung translucent paper or mica panels. Pictures painted on the panels would appear to move if the device is spun at the right speed. [1][2][3][4]

The modern zoetrope was invented in 1833 by British mathematician William George Horner. He called it the 'Daedalum' ('the wheel of the devil). It didn't become popular until the 1860s, when it was patented by makers in both England and America. The American developer, William F. Lincoln, named his toy the 'zoetrope', which means 'wheel of life'.

Almost simultaneously similar inventions were made independently in Belgium by Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau (Phenakistoscope) and Austria by Simon von Stampfer , (Stroboscope).

The zoetrope worked on the same principles as the phenakistiscope, but the pictures were drawn on a strip which could be set around the bottom third of a metal drum, with the slits now cut in the upper section of the drum. The drum was mounted on a spindle so that it could be spun, and viewers looking through the slits would see the cartoon strip form a moving image. The faster the drum is spun, the smoother the image that is produced.

Modern times

William F Lincoln promoted Horner's device in the United States as a "zoetrope".

The praxinoscope was an improvement on the zoetrope that became popular toward the end of the nineteenth century.

The earliest projected moving images were displayed by using a magic lantern zoetrope. This crude projection of moving images occurred as early as the 1860s. A magic lantern praxinoscope was demonstrated in the 1880s.

Zoetrope development continues into the twenty-first century, primarily with the "Linear zoetrope." A linear zoetrope consists of an opaque linear screen with thin vertical slits in it. Behind each slit is an image, often illuminated. One views the motion-picture by moving past the display.

Linear zoetropes have several differences compared to cylindrical zoetropes that derive from their different geometries. They can have arbitrarily long animations. They also cause images to appear wider than their actual sizes when viewed in motion through the slits.

In September 1980, independent film-maker Bill Brand installed a type of linear zoetrope he called the "Masstransiscope" in an unused subway platform at Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn, New York. It consisted of a linear wall with 228 slits in the face. Behind each slit was a hand-painted panel. Riders in subways moving past the display saw a motion-picture within. After falling into a state of disrepair, the "Masstransiscope" was restored in late 2008.

Joshua Spodek, as an astrophysics graduate student, conceived of and led the development of a class of linear zoetropes that saw the first commercial success of a zoetrope in over a century. A display of his design debuted in September 2001 in a tunnel of the Atlanta subway system and showed an advertisement to riders moving past. That display is internally lit and nearly 300 meters long. Its motion-picture was about twenty seconds long.

His design soon appeared in subway systems elsewhere in North America, Asia, and Europe. Joshua has also participated in a renaissance in zoetrope related art and other noncommercial expression.

A Zoetrope was used in the filming of a music video entitled "My Last Serenade by Killswitch Engage. It features a woman looking through the slits on a Zoetrope while it moves, and as she looks closer, the camera moves through the slits into the Zoetrope where the band is playing the song.

In April 2006, the Washington Metro installed advertising using the zoetrope system between the Metro Center and Gallery Place subway stations.[5] A similar advertisement was installed on the PATH train in New Jersey, between the World Trade Center and Exchange Place stations.

A similar zoetrope-type advertisement appeared at about the same time on the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system between the Embarcadero and Montgomery stations, which could be viewed by commuters travelling in either direction. The BART ads are still visible at the present time, however the ads are infrequently changed and oftentimes a particular ad may remain up for several months before being replaced.

The Ghibli Museum hosts a zoetrope using 3D figures on a rotating disk. Rather than slits or mirrors, a strobing LED is used. The animation on this zoetrope is inspired by My Neighbour Totoro.

Pixar created a zoetrope inspired by Ghibli's for its 20th anniversary celebration at the Museum of Modern Art, featuring characters from Toy Story. The exhibit is currently on display at Disney's California Adventure, sister park to Disneyland, and was (April-September 2008) shown at the Seoul Arts Center in Seoul, South Korea.

In 2007 an image of a zoetrope, where a futuristic city with flying cars was viewed through the shape of a number two, was unveiled as one of BBC Two's new idents.

Blue Man Group uses a zoetrope at the Las Vegas show as well as at the Sharp Aquos Theater at Universal Studios in Orlando, FL.

World record

, in Northern Italy]]

In 2008 Sony built a 10 meter wide, 10 tonne zoetrope, called the BRAVIA-drome, to promote Motionflow 200Hz, their motion interpolation technology, where three new frames are added per second to smooth the picture. Sixty-four images of the Brazilian footballer Kaká were used inside the BRAVIA-drome to demonstrate that with increased frame rate (speed at which the zoetrope rotated), there is increased smoothness of motion[6]. This has been declared the largest zoetrope in the world by Guinness World Records. It's capable of speeds of up to 50 kilometres per hour [7][8].

See also


  1. ^ Ronan, Colin A; Joseph Needham (1985). The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 2. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-31536-0. 
  2. ^ Dulac, Nicolas; André Gaudreault (2004). "Heads or Tails: The Emergence of a New Cultural Series, from the Phenakisticope to the Cinematograph". Invisible Culture: A Journal for Visual Culture. The University of Rochester. Retrieved on 2006-05-13. 
  3. ^ History of Media, University of Minnesota, accessed May 13 2006
  4. ^ "Zoetrope". Laura Hayes and John Howard Wileman Exhibit of Optical Toys. The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. 2005. Retrieved on 2006-05-13. 
  5. ^ Metro begins testing new tunnel ads, NBC4, April 4, 2006
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Sony Creates World’s Largest Zoetrope". 2009-02-18. Retrieved on 2009-02-18. 

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Wikipedia has an article on:



Formed irregularly from Greek ζωή ‘life’ + -τροπος ‘turning’.


  • IPA: /'zəʊɪtrəʊp/




zoetrope (plural zoetropes)

  1. An optical toy, in which figures made to revolve on the inside of a cylinder, and viewed through slits in its circumference, appear like a single figure passing through a series of natural motions as if animated or mechanically moved.
    • 1993: This was the way I passed through the remainder of my childhood. The zoetrope span smoothly, time’s Chief Designer narrowed the legs of trousers and decreed that the cars should be more aerodynamic. — Will Self, My Idea of Fun

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