THAUMATROPE

DescriptionChildren’s toy to demonstrate the persistence of vision
ManufacturerOptical Toys
Time Period2005
ComponentsMultiple
DetailsIncludes storage case, instruction booklet and thaumatropes of varying sizes

Branded Trompe L’Oeil
DimensionsVariable
LocationUCL Cabinet of Obsolete Media
Inventory nºUCL201733

As we slowly tug at the strings, the disc begins to rotate. We see a bird within its cage, until the motion comes to a halt and we realizes that our eyes have been deceived. First presented in 1824 at the Royal College of Physicians by John Ayrton Paris, the thaumatrope however, appears to predate even its Victorian invention, as a Palaeolithic equivalent is thought to have been discovered within the Mas d’Azil cave in southern France (Fig. 1).[1] Employed by Paris as a method through which to demonstrate the persistence of vision[2], it is the thaumatrope’s apparent simplicity and didactic function that would make of it such a popular invention in the years following its creation.

            The device is conventionally comprised of a paper or cardboard circle on the front and verso of which related images are equally aligned (such as a bird and a cage); this is perforated on both sides of the disc to allow for strings to be attached. The thaumatrope functions by being wound back several times to build tension within the handles, and subsequently released by a slight pull on either side. The illusion created is that of the two previously separated images being perceived as one in an almost three-dimensional manner until the rotating motion of the disc stops. This occurs through the formation and layering of the latter appearing object (i.e. the cage) on top of the positive afterimage generated from seeing the first object in the motion sequence (the bird). The emphasis placed on the persistence of vision in pre-cinematic inventions such as the phenakistiscope and the zoetropes, alongside the thaumatrope, can be compared to the ‘flicker fusion’ experienced when an analogue film is watched.[3] Having published a short description of it in 1827 in his educational book for children entitled Philosophy in Sport Made Science in Earnest, the low cost and effective results of Paris’ invention accentuated its democratizing, pedagogical potential for understanding mechanisms of vision (Fig. 2). Despite this, the thaumatrope’s commercialization following 1825, when W. Phillips registered it at the Stationer’s Hall in London, marked an impediment in its initial aspirations. Sold in boxes of 12 or 18 discs, its steep price at the time caused for the device to be massively plagiarized (disseminated in cheaper forms) and marketed for its potential to ‘amuse’, rather than its innovative nature (the same can be said for both the daguerreotype and the stereoscope).[4] Since the Victorian era, thaumatropes continued to be produced as popular toys despite advances in optical science. Their illusion continues to fascinate us even today, and we rewind the disc.

S.C.


[1] Jill Cook, Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, London: British Museum, 2012.

[2] This is the optical mechanism by which an object’s afterimage is retained in our occipital lobe after the act of viewing has ceased.

[3] Teresa Lauretis and Stephen Heath, The Cinematic Apparatus, Houndmills: Macmillan, 1988, p. 96.

[4] Henry Mayhew, London Labour and the London Poor, 1851, pp. 286-7.