Friday A/V Club: GIFs of the 19th Century

Weird, wonderful proto-movies


My chief contribution to the November Reason is an essay about animated GIFs, described in the article as "simultaneously the shortest variety of motion picture (just a few seconds) and the longest (those seconds loop forever)." Here's how the piece ends:

The animated GIF is not the first species of motion picture to combine brevity and eternity in this way, with a simple sequence repeating potentially forever. In the 19th century, optical toys with peculiar names—zoetropes, praxinoscopes, zoopraxi­scopes—created the illusion of motion by showing a succession of images in rapid sequence, helping pave the way for the movies. But unlike a 20th-century film (and unlike other 19th-century moving picture amusements, such as the flipbook) they span in a circle rather than progressing from beginning to end. Some of them feel surprisingly modern, even psychedelic.

How do I know what those ancient motion pictures look like? Because fans of early cinema have posted many of them online. Frequently as GIFs.

I didn't mention it in the story, but the best place on the Web to see those 19th-century GIFs is a Tumblr run by the photographer Dick Balzer and his assistant Brian Duffy. Here, for example, are six praxinoscope strips that Balzer collected, all crafted by the French animator Émile Reynaud in the 1880s:

I especially like the one on the lower left, which feels like something from psychedelic-era Sesame Street but was made about 90 years too early for that.

Here, meanwhile, is a phenakistoscope disc that someone conjured up in the Netherlands around 1850. Put on some music while you watch it—I recommend this or this, but any funky soundtrack will do:

Finally, check this out:

Balzer doesn't give a date or place of origin for that one, let alone identify its creator. Too bad: That artist deserved to be remembered.

These early animations aren't just entertaining amusements. They're the seeds from which cinema was born, paving the way eventually for everything from newsreels to teleconferencing. There's a lesson there about progress, one expressed ably by Jane Jacobs in her great book Cities and the Wealth of Nations:

The first successful railroad in the world was an amusement ride in London. Many of us can remember when plastics were used for little except toys and kitchen gadgets, and for piano keys as a lower-cost replacement for ivory. Tennis rackets, golf clubs and fishing rods afforded the first uses of strong, lightweight composites of plastics reinforced with fibers of glass, boron and carbon; now those composites are starting to replace metals in some construction products, some types of springs, pipelines, and aircraft and automobile parts. Computer games preceded personal computers for workaday use. For years before artificial voices were being incorporated into computerized work tools to call out the temperatures of equipment or to sound explanatory warnings, they were being used in computerized toys and gimmickry for children (e.g., "Speak and Spell") and were being prematurely written off by "serious" developers and users of computers as cute but useless. In my own city today I notice that solar heating is largely a passion of hobbyists, as is drip irrigation, which conserves labor, fertilizer, water and space in home vegetable gardening.

"All big things grow from little things," [Cyril Stanley] Smith comments, "but new little things are destroyed by their environments unless they are cherished for reasons more like esthetic appreciation than practical utility."

Visit Balzer's Tumblr here, and explore his site devoted to old optical toys here. Read The Verge's profile of Balzer here. Check out past editions of the Friday A/V Club here.