Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Brief History of the Zoetrope

A zoetrope is a device that produces an illusion of action from a rapid succession of static pictures. The term zoetrope is from the Greek words "zoe", "life" and tropos, "turn". It may be taken to mean "wheel of life". This wheel of life was one of the first devices that was used to create moving images. In a way, this device and its affiliates were the precursors to cinema.

Of course, my name being Zoe, I was interested in this aspect of the last section of The Language of New Media. As the nineteenth century obsession with devices that moved images intensified, these devices were pushed and pulled into new dimensions of thought. From these twelve or so images, arranged in a circle we have evolved into cinema, into other circles within circles, and into other representations of ourselves in new media.

Today the zoetrope seems to have gone out of mainstream society. It could be considered a 'lost media' in a way even though concepts of the design are apparent in cinema and media representations. However, as I was traveling along the subway in New York City recently I noticed something strange. The regular posters and advertisements that you ride past between some part of the blue line, I cannot remember which part, seemed to work together into a pattern.

The history of my discovery is that in September 1980, independent film-maker Bill Brand installed a type of linear zoetrope he called the "Masstransiscope" in an unused subway platform in Brooklyn. It consisted of a linear wall with 228 slits in the face. Behind each slit was a hand-painted panel. Riders in subways moving past the display saw a motion-picture within. After falling into a state of disrepair, the "Masstransiscope" was restored in late 2008. Since then, a variety of artists and advertisers have begun to use subway tunnel walls to produce a zoetrope effect when viewed from moving trains. There is another zoetrope along a section of the PATH.

So, even though there is new media, old media, and the media in between, in a way everything is part of our media.

Just like the zoetrope...everything is cyclical.


  1. I find your interest in your namesake to be charming. Do you know the name of Francis Ford Coppola's film company, by the way?

  2. I just looked it up! My name is a lot more famous then I previously anticipated.

  3. Hello,

    I thought you might be interested to know that I have started work on a new website, The Wheel of Life. The subject is 19th-century sequence-picture optical toys.

    The Home page is here:


    this links through to the main essays.

    The Contents list is here:


    this links to other pages.

    There’s lots still to do to get the basic website finished (links to image sources, more main essays, etc) and then I’ll try to add something every month.

    I hope you enjoy The Wheel of Life as it develops, and I’m always pleased to hear comments, and learn new things about the subject.

    Best wishes,

    Stephen Herbert