What is a Zoopraxiscope?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A zoopraxiscope is a projection device for very short films and movies. Many historians consider it the first true movie projector, and although the zoopraxiscope is a long-dead device, the basic idea can be seen in many modern projectors and animation techniques. Several examples of the equipment used with zoopraxiscopes are on display at museums around the world, with one museum having a largely intact zoopraxiscope.

Woman holding an optical disc
Woman holding an optical disc

The device was invented in 1879 by Eadweard Muybridge, one of the early pioneers of photography. Muybridge was born in Britain, although he spent much of his life in California, where he engaged in some colorful adventures when he was not photographing and inventing. There are two basic parts to a zoopraxiscope; the projector housing and the discs which fit into it. Much like modern projectors, the zoopraxiscope had a lamp, a lens, and an adjustable shutter which was used to focus the picture. The glass discs had a series of frames printed along their margins.

To use a zoopraxiscope, a disc is mounted in the device and then turned. As the disc turns, the images printed on it are projected. When the disc is turned at the right rate, the images appear to move, illustrating the same basic principle which is used to create modern movies. The length of the film is, of course, severely limited by the diameter of the disc, so zoopraxiscope films are by nature very short.

The earliest films were made by painting the images directly onto the glass. Later films were made with photographs printed onto the surface, and color films were produced by hand coloring the glass. Muybridge used his zoopraxiscope to illustrate many principles of animal motion, another one of his passions. One famous zoopraxiscope film shows a series of photographs of a racehorse in motion. Muybridge used the film to prove that at one point, all the feet of a racehorse are actually off the ground. These photographs are now in the collections of Stanford University.

If you are curious, the first zoopraxiscope show was at the home of Leland Stanford in Palo Alto, California. If one considers the zoopraxiscope the first movie projector, this was also the first motion picture show. The 1879 audience probably had no idea that the zoopraxiscope would inspire technology which would ultimately birth a multibillion dollar global industry.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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