The invention of the thaumatrope – the spinning disc with an image on each side, creating an illusion of movement or a combined image – is officially credited to either Peter Mark Roget or John Ayrton Paris, both of whom lived in Victorian times. The thaumatrope is considered the precursor to the many other ‘toys’ that make use of persistence of vision to create the appearance of moving drawings, and is therefore an important milestone in the development of animation. However, the origins of the thaumatrope may lie much further back in history than the generally supposed 1825.
In 1868, a bone disc was found in the Dordogne in France. The disc has been dated to approximately 30,000 B.C., meaning that it was made by our ancient ancestors during the Palaeolithic era. In 2012, archaeologist Marc Azéma and artist Florent Rivère examined this disc and several others like it that were found in the nearby Pyrenees. Long supposed to be buttons or decorative beads, Azéma and Rivère propose that these bone discs, all of which have a small hole bored through the centre, are in fact the earliest examples of thaumatropes. They reported:
“Given that some are decorated on both sides with animals shown in different positions, we realized that another type of use, relating to sequential animation, was possible,” (Lorenzi, 2012)
The 1868 disc from the Dordogne is perhaps the best example. On one side, it shows a deer or similar animal in a standing position. On the opposite side, the same animal is lying down:
When a string is threaded through the central hole and the disc made to spin, “the animal goes down then gets back up in a fraction of a second and vice versa”. (Lorenzi, 2012)
Azéma has also spent 20 years studying cave paintings from the same time period and believes that the reason that so many animals in prehistoric paintings have multiple heads or limbs is that this was another rudimentary attempt at animation. The images appear odd and static to the modern observer, but when viewed by flickering torchlight, the additional and differently posed limbs would have given the effect of movement.
If it is indeed the case that our prehistoric ancestors were attempting to create movement through sequential images, then our enduring interest in animation seems almost an inevitability. While we can never be completely sure of the purpose behind the objects and images these ancient people left behind, it is amazing to think that they might have shared modern animators’ fascination with creating movement with still images and bringing drawings to life.
Lorenzi, R., 2012, Discovery News [Online]
Available at: http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/prehistoric-movies-120608.htm
Crum, A., 2012, Web Pro News [Online]
Available at: http://www.webpronews.com/prehistoric-animated-cave-drawings-discovered-in-france-2012-06