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A History of Flipbooks and the Moving Image

Flipbooks, Crazy Names, Movies . . . and The People Who Created Them

Think about this: Every picture in a flipbook is still. It might be a drawing of a house, or a photo of a butterfly, or a picture of a dinosaur, but each image on each page is motionless on a piece of paper – it does not move at all. However, when you flip the pages quickly, the pictures really look like they’re moving. This is an illusion of course, but it’s rather amazing how much they look like moving images. Now think about this: Every movie you see at a theater, every TV show you watch, every Youtube video, every iPhone video, every video game, even every Imax movie works on the very same basic principle as a flipbook. The moving images are all an illusion created by showing still images very quickly. And this illusion, of still images that look like moving images, takes place because of a fancy term known as persistence of vision.

Every movie works on the same principle as a flipbook

What is persistence of vision? It is the phenomenon that happens when your eye and brain see two or more images very quickly, one after the other. Your eyes have the ability to blend these images together so that the brain "sees" them as smooth movement. That's exactly what your eyes and brain are doing when you watch a movie or an iPhone video or a flipbook. They are blending individual images together to give the illusion of real movement. Remember, this works best when each picture is similar to the next one.

Portraits of pioneers in the history of moving images

Let’s take a look at the history of moving images. (Sometimes moving images are called an “animation” – (other types of moving images include “movies,” “films,” “cartoons,” and “videos”). It’s a fascinating history involving extremely creative photographers, inventors, artists, engineers and scientists. And each one learned important lessons and principles from the ones before them.

photo of a zoetropeThe earliest devices that created the illusion of moving images and animations were small mechanical machines that were shaped like a cylinder or circular drum, like a tiny merry-go-round. The inventors pasted still images inside the drum, and when it was turned with a crank and viewed at a certain angle, the images blended together to appear as if they were moving. The very first invention of this kind was the phenakistoscope (how’s that for a crazy name!?), invented in 1829 by a Belgian named Joseph Plateau. A few years later, the daedaleum (later called a zoetrope) was invented by William Homer, and it allowed more than one person to view the moving images at the same time. Zoetrope means “wheel of life.” How amazing and magical it must have been to see moving images for the first time. (Maybe it was similar to the way you felt when you saw a flipbook work for the first time.) Another moving image invention was the praxinoscope, invented in 1877 by Charles-Émile Reynaud. It was similar to a zoetrope, but used mirrors to simplify the viewing process.

photo of a kineographThe first flipbook appeared in 1868 when it was patented by John Barnes Linnett under the name kineograph (Latin for "moving picture"). His kineograph was the first form of animation to use a linear sequence of images – like a booklet - rather than circular drums. From 1875 to 1900 several pioneers of moving images made Muybridge's images of a galloping horse amazing discoveries and created incredible inventions. One of the greatest names in the history of the moving image is Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge was an eccentric genius. For years he had been a very successful landscape photographer, but in the early 1870’s he invented a way to rig many cameras so that they would take similar photos in rapid order. Then when the photos were put together to be viewed quickly one after the other they created moving images.

photo of Marey's camera rifleAn extraordinarily creative French inventor was Etienne-Jules Marey who in 1882 invented the first portable movie camera – but it wasn’t shaped like a camera at all – it was shaped like a rifle and it took rapid photographs that could be turned into moving images. It was a truly brilliant invention. Muybridge and Marey met in Paris to share ideas, and Muybridge kept inventing better and better cameras and soon worked closely withimage of a kinetoscope Thomas Edison to help invent the first movie camera and an early viewing device called a Kinetoscope. At about the same time, the Lumière brothers in France were also working to invent movie cameras and projectors, and it was they who showed the very first movie to a public audience. The year was 1895. Movies were born!

still of Melies's moon speical effectKeep in mind that in the early years of moving images, ANY MOVIE was amazing to see, whether it was simply 15 seconds of a man walking down the street or a train pulling into a station. An ordinary event was amazing when it was shown as the illusion of a movie. But soon audiences wanted more. Perhaps you’ve heard of George Meliés? (Have you seen the movie “Hugo”?) Meliés was the first filmmaker to use special effects. Movies grew up very quickly in the early twentieth century. Improvements and creative energies that followed the early pioneers have never stopped, from the invention of adding sound to movies in 1927, to zoom lenses, to incredible special effects. But remember . . .

. . . A simple flipbook works on the same basic principle that the most advanced movies and videos do. The main difference is that in movies and videos you're looking at pictures of light that are projected or transmitted onto a screen, and in a flipbook you're looking at pictures that are printed on little pages of paper. Of course, with a flipbook you get to hold the movie in your hands, and control it yourself!

If you're interested in learning more about flipbooks and the history of moving pictures, you might want to go online and research the inventions and inventors we’ve covered in this history. And here are some more crazy names, types of moving images and people to look up: thaumatrope, zoopraxiscope, time-lapse photography, stop-action, claymation, George Eastman, Walt Disney.

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