I recently worked on a short animation project, whereby the goal was to create a simple 12 frame animation using hand drawings, in the style of a zoetrope animation. In taking this on I decided to look into the history of this form of animation, as this was the first time I had heard of the particular technique.

The zoetrope is an early animation device which gives the illusion of motion in a series of still images. It is made up of simply a hollow cylinder (with vertical slits cut into the sides at regular intervals), on the inside of which is a strip made up of a sequence of static pictures. The device is then spun and a viewer can look through the slits to see the imagery inside. The spacing of the slits causes the images to appear to the human eye one after the other in rapid succession rather than blurring together, which much like a cinema projector creates  the illusion of a moving image.

The device can draw its roots all the way back to 180 AD and Chinese inventor Ting Huan, who created an early form of the zoetrope called ‘chao hua chich kuan’, which translates as ‘the pipe which makes fantasies appear’ (Needham 1962).

The modern zoetrope however was invented in 1833 by British mathematician William George Horner (Thompson and Bordwell 2010). He named it the ‘daedalum’ and it later became popular in the 1860s upon being patented by English and American manufacturers.

It was later improved upon and replaced by such devices as the praxinoscope and eventually modern film and television. However, the zoetrope retains its position as a large part of the origins of modern animation.


Needham, J., 1962. Science and Civilisation in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 1, Physics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Thompson, K. and Bordwell, D. 2010. Film history.  New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Higher Education.