Honoring Joseph Plateau: creator of the phenakistoscope

You’ve likely already seen today’s Google Doodle. It’s an animated representation of the phenakistoscope, which Joseph Plateau is credited for inventing.

Essentially, the phenakistoscope is a spinning disc that is seen as one of the earliest precursors to cinema as we know it today. It is the world’s first animation device and it was developed by Plateau in 1832. The Google Doodle is celebrating Plateau’s birthday. His full name is Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau, and he was a Belgian physicist who lived until he was 82 years old. Today would have been his 218th birthday.

Inventing the phenakistoscope

Born October 14th, 1801, Plateau first studied law. However, he didn’t stick on that path. Instead, he invested his time into science and made that his career path. It was in 1832 when he developed the concept for the phenakistoscope. He put two discs together that rotated in opposite directions. One of the discs was filled with small windows. The other disc had a few pictures of dancers on it. If these two discs were turned at just the right speed, the images merged together. It would make it seem like the dancers were in motion.

Google's phenakistiscope illustration
This is Google interpretation of the phenakistiscope

Many other scientists of that era were experimenting with optical illusions, photography and image projections. While Joseph Plateau is credited as the inventor of the phenakistoscope, Berlin’s Simon von Stampfer invented it independently at around the same time. Plateau only beat Stampfer by a few weeks.

Without Plateau, modern entertainment would be vastly different

The phenakistoscope quickly became a hit and became mass-produced. However, it was marketed with more pronounceable names like “Magic Wheel”, Fantoscope, and Phatasmascope. When they first started the be produced, the illustrations on them were simple. As the years went by, the design became more and more complicated.

Naturally, other inventors were inspired by the phenakistoscope. It led to the invention of the Zoetrope and Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope. The Zoopraxiscope actually projected the animation by film. Eventually, people forgot about the phenakistoscope. Regardless, its influence lives on and Joseph Plateau’s work is immortalized in today’s cinema.

Sean Berry
Sean Berry
Sean Berry is Videomaker's managing editor.

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