short, shareable animations have delighted humans for centuries

They are a popular feature of social media and text messaging in 2022, but many people are surprised to discover short, shareable animations or videos, like GIFs have been around in digital format for 35 years, but in analog for nearly two centuries. .

Today, many have become internet memes, added for emphasis, and mostly played on a continuous loop.

GIF (short for Graphics Interchange Format)

Steve Wilhite, a computer scientist working at CompuServe is recognized as the creator of the Graphics Interchange Format, or GIF in 1987.

A GIF is a small image file that can support short animations or videos. GIFs work by stringing together multiple frames or images into a single file, which plays like a short clip.

Compressed, these are small files; GIFs are easily shared via email and social media.

While most can share the fun of a well-chosen GIF, there’s long-standing heated disagreement over how to pronounce the acronym, followed per hour (this COSMOS reporter pronounced GIF with a hard “g”, while Wilhite apparently preferred the softer version, like “JIF”).

But long before the GIF, there were various forms of short, shareable animations made in analog. Here we flip through some of them.

Ghost GIF / Credit: Matthias Brown

Thaumatropes (from the Greek for ‘wonder turner’)

Dating back to 1827, a thaumatrope is a two-sided disc that creates a simple animation when spun.

The device is a disc with different but linked images on each side and strings attached to opposite ends. When these strings are tightly wound and then released, the disk spins creating a simple animation.

While the idea was described and popularized by John Ayrton Paris, the inventor of this wonder turner is not known.

Thaumatrope / Credit: Internet Archive Book Images

Phenakistoscopes (from the Greek for “deceptive spectator”)

In 1832, an analogous form of the modern GIF was created by rotating a circular card in its center.

That year, two scientists, Joseph Plateau from Belgium and Simon von Stampfer from Austria, independently created looping animations called phenakistoscopes.

The phenakistoscope creates the illusion of moving images by slicing the circle into segments and placing a sequential image at slightly staggered locations in each slice, using vector graphics. Each slice of the circle acts as a frame in an animation. Between each slice is a black radial slot.

When the circle is rotated at its center and its reflection is viewed using a mirror, the effect creates the illusion of fluid moving images like a short repetitive video.

Phenakistoscope 1
Phenakistoscope / Credit: Flickr user trialanderrors

Read more: Why do fans sometimes look like they’re spinning upside down?

Zoetropes (from the Greek for ‘tower of life’)

Two years later, the mathematician William Horner created the zoetropean idea based on the phenakistoscope but able to be seen by more than one person at a time.

A larger cylinder like a drum has slots cut into the sides for viewing. Bands of sequential images rotate inside the cylinder so that the viewer sees them one after the other.

The technology was popularized by American business magnate, gaming pioneer and publisher, Milton Bradley in 1866 who sold zoetropes as toys with replaceable image strips.

Several animation studios have built three-dimensional versions of the zoetrope using sequentially posed figures instead of images. Visitors to the Australian Center for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne can experience a 3d zoetrope video game character Cuphead. Meanwhile, visitors to the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo, can see a zoetrope of jumping and running totoros built using figurines from the Studio Ghibli movie My Neighbor Totoro.

Zoetrope cupheard photo by james henry copy
ACMI’s Cuphead Zoetrope / Credit: James Henry

Learn more about phenakistoscopes and GIFs at SCINEMA International Science Film Festival 2022

For more on the history and science of the phenakistoscope (and instructions on how to make one), watch the entry to the SCINEMA 2022 International Science Film Festival, Animated GIFs: celebrating scientific geniusby registration to consult it free of charge on the SCINEMA website.

Follow the instructions on the email you receive and you will find Animated GIFs: celebrating scientific genius in the Animation/Experimental playlist. You can watch all the films until August 31, 2022, the end date of the festival.

Gif little prince jumping by sanni lahtinen - find and share on giphy
GIF based on a phenakistoscope / Credit: Sanni Lahtinen on GIPHY

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