William George Horner, 1834

History | How it works | What became of it | Video Demonstrations
Sources | Side View | Back to Optical Toys


The zoetrope was invented in 1834 by William Horner, who originally called it a Daedalum ("wheel of the Devil").  It was based on Plateau's phenakistoscope, but was more convenient since it did not require a viewing mirror and allowed more than one person to use it at the same time.  Horner's invention strangely became forgotten for nearly thirty years until 1867, when it became patented in England by M. Bradley, and in America by William F. Lincoln.  Lincoln renamed the Daedalum, giving it the name of "zoetrope," or "wheel of life." 

How it works:

The zoetrope is the third major optical toy, after the thaumatrope and phenakistoscope, that uses the persistence of motion principle to create an illusion of motion.  It consists of a simple drum with an open top, supported on a central axis.  A sequence of hand-drawn pictures on strips of paper are placed around the inner bottom of the drum.  Slots are cut at equal distances around the outer surface of the drum, just above where the picture strips were to be positioned. 

To create an illusion of motion, the drum is spun; the faster the rate of spin, the smoother the progression of images.  A viewer can look through the wall of the zoetrope from any point around it, and see a rapid progression of images.  Because of its design, more than one person could use the zoetrope at the same time.  


What became of it:

When the praxinoscope was invented by Emile Reynaud in 1877, interest in the zoetrope declined.  The praxinoscope offered a clearer, brighter image to viewers than the zoetrope could.  In 1889, George Eastman invented flexible photographic film, which allowed a lot of film to be held on one reel.  Whereas zoetrope picture strips were limited to about 15 pictures per strip, devices using reels of the new flexible film could present longer animations to viewers.  Finally, in 1895, modern cinema was born.  Once moving pictures could be projected on a large screen, optical toys such as the zoetrope became used less and less frequently.

Links to video demonstrations:

Streamed (requires RealPlayer G2 or higher)
Fast connection (T1/LAN/DSL/cable) only
All connections

For higher video quality in a downloadable file
Video for Windows




Biographical information for William G. Horner:

How to build your own zoetrope (downloadable PDF manual)

Click here to see a side view of the zoetrope, showing its cylindrical shape.