Victorian Optical Toys

happening-history-85The 19th C was an age of invention and discovery and what many people don’t know is that the first ever movies were being shown by the end of the 19th Century in the 1890s.  It was however a series of smaller inventions at this time which led to one of the greatest.  In particular it was the discovery of what was termed ‘the persistence of vision’ in the early 19th century which led to the creation of many new toys that many Victorians would play with within their own homes.

This display explains how these inventions led to the creation of the first movies by the end of the century.  There are many optical toys for the public to play with.  There is also opportunity at various points throughout the day to make their own optical toy such as a thaumotrope (spinning disc).  Run to passing trade throughout the day and with timed toy making sessions.

Thaumotropes (spinning discs)
At about the same time that the first photo was taken a man called Dr John Paris was inventing the Thaumotrope.  This consisted of a disc of cardboard with two different images of each side.  Strings were attached to each side of the disc and when the strings were twisted at speed, the two images were united as one.  A famous example of this is the bird in a cage.  On one side of the disc is an empty cage, on the other a bird, when the disc is spun, the bird appears to the eye to be within the cage.  The discovery that the eye could be tricked like this was called ‘The Persistence of Vision’.  They believed, that our eyes need time to process each image that we see and for each image to fade and the new one to appear.  19th century theories on this have been disproved but it was key to their beliefs and interests at this time.

Invented in 1832, the Phenakistoscope is a flat spinning disc with slots arranged around the edge.  On one side of the disc are a series of images, as you’d find in a flick book.  On the other is a handle.  The user looks through the slots on the back of the disc at a reflection of the images.  Rather like a flick book, when it is spun, the images appear to be moving.

This consisted of an open topped drum with slits all the way round the edge. The drum could spin on its base.  Inside the drum a strip of slightly different images were placed.  When the drum was spun and the images viewed through the slots the images appeared to be moving.

The Zoetrope was designed in 1834 by W. Horner of Bristol.  However it was not until 1860 that the device became really popular.   It was origially called the Daedelum.  Acrobats somersaulting and people dancing were popular Victorian subjects.

File 05-04-2017, 16 59 26Stereoscopes
3D films are familiar in the modern world but they have their routes in Victorian times.

Stereoscopes were a popular way to view images in 3D in the 19th C.  Each eye would be looking at a different image. Both images were very similar but ever so slightly different and had been taken an eyes distance apart.  This tricked the brain into seeing a 3D image.

The first stereoscope was invented in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatsone.  Various other stereoscopes were invented after this such as the Brewster stereoscope in 1849.   In 1861 a new type of scope was invented by Oliver Wendell Holmes, now known as the Holmes stereoscope (pictured here).

 Stereoscopes were important in driving forward the demand for cheap photographs as the craze for 3D images swept Europe. Stereoscopes were popular for home entertainment right up until the 1930s and are still produced today.


The Praxinoscope was an improvement on the zoetrope and was invented in 1876 by Charles-Émile Raynaud.  Instead of looking directly at the cartoon strip through slots in the side of the drum, the viewer looks directly at the mirrors in the middle of the drum, which reflect the moving images.  The break between the mirrors mean it works in the same way as the zoetrope but it gives a much clearer image.  You can see this in the video below.


File 05-04-2017, 16 00 18The Toupie-Fantoches
This was another invention of Charles- Émile Raynaud in 1881.  Like the Praxinoscope it used mirrors but only 4 arranged as a pyramid.  A disc with a set of images was placed on top with the images reflecting in the mirrors.  The Toupie was then spun and the viewer watched the reflected images in the mirrors.


Magic Lantern1Magic Lantern
Magic Lanterns like the one you can see here gave people the first moving images and were the inspiration for the first movie projectors used in cinemas.

The inventor of the magic lantern has been much debated but most people believe it to be a Dutch man called Christiaan Huygens in about 1659. Father Athanasius Kircher is often credited with its invention but although he was writing about some of the principles of projecting light through a convex lens, he is not considered by most to be its inventor.

Pig carrying cookMagic lantern shows were very popular in the 18th & 19th centuries. Including ‘Phantasmagoria’ shows which projected ghostly images onto smoke, the smoke made the images appear to shiver and move.  The first phantasmagoria was shown in a haunted Parisian chapel in 1798 and was very scary for those watching.

Lantern slides were made which appeared to show moving images. This was done by using special slides with moving parts.  You can see this in the image beside this text.  This slide transforms from a cook carrying a pigs head on plate, as the glass slipper slide is pulled, the image changes to show a pig carrying the cooks head!  The first lantern images were hand painted but as the 19th century progressed many lantern images changed from drawings to photographs.

Magic lantern shows were very popular in the 19th century and lanterns were also made for home entertainment and as toys for children. They were the cinema and TV of their day.  Lanterns started to fade in popularity with the rise of the movie in the early 20th century.

Invention of Photography
Photography was invented in the early 19th century but there were several stages in the process before we could have movies by the end of the century.

DaguerreotypeThe Daguerrotype
The first ever photograph was taken in 1827 by a Frenchman called Nicephore Nieppe of the view from his room.  Nieppe had discovered a way to record an image permanently.  Nieppe started working closely with another Frenchman called Louis Daguerre.  Daguerre went on to create the first commercially available photographs which were called Daguerreotypes.  Without this important invention, the movies would not have been possible.  Most of the early photos were portraits of people and visitors can view some of these original images in our show.

negative2Negatives are invented – A way to produce more than 1 copy
It was an English man, William Henry Fox Talbot of Lacock in Wilshire, who invented the first negative using tracing paper. This type of negative had faults and gave blotchy photos.  This process was called a calotype.


It was another Englishman, Frederick Scott Archer who invented the glass negative in 1848. His process was called the collodion wet plate process.  It gave better images and allowed multiple copies to be produced. It only took a few seconds of exposure to take the photo, instead of minutes.  It took between 2-20 seconds to take a photo.

A negative is formed when the plate is exposed to the light, due to the light sensitive chemicals painted on it. These darken when exposed to light.  The negatives are then applied to special light sensitive photographic paper and placed in sunlight.  This would give a positive image on the paper.  This is called contact printing.

The trouble with Archers negatives was that the film plate had to be painted with chemicals just before the photo was taken and the photographer had to have his head under a dark cloth connected to the camera whilst he did this. This meant he breathed in all sorts of chemical fumes.  The negative was then developed if out in the field, in a tented dark room nearby.  This was called the collodion or wet plate process.

In 1871, an Englishman called Dr Richard Leach Maddox invented the dry plate negative (see negative of lady holding baby). This meant that the curtain on the camera was no longer needed and a photo could be taken in 1/50th of a second!  Later on the process was made even quicker and a photo could be taken in 1/500th of a second.

This was a great advance but you still couldn’t shoot a movie on a still camera. A step towards this was taken in 1882 by a French doctor called Etienne Marey (ma-RAY).  Marey who made a photo-gun which used a round dry plate to shoot 12 photos in a row.  This gun is the reason we still talk about ‘shooting’ a movie.

Celluloid film
What was needed was a different way to capture the images.  Luckily at about the same time Marey was using his photo gun, an American called George Eastman was inventing the first roll film.  He coated strips of paper with a gelatine & chemical mix and rolled the film up for use.  Eastman went on to found Kodak.  It meant that cameras could be light and portable and the roll films were very successful.

This still wasn’t suitable for shooting a movie. What was needed was celluloid film.  Celluloid is a type of plastic.  It was much stronger than paper.  Several inventors came up with the idea for celluloid at the same time.

Cameras were made that could unwind the film and had a blinking shutter. Then the first movies were ready to be made!  Thomas Edison, the great inventor, famous for inventing the light bulb had a working movie camera ready by 1894. Edison’s camera could take 48 pictures a second.  However, to begin with Edison thought that there was no future in movies!

The first movie projector Once the film had been shot, a way to show it to people was still needed.    The credit for creating the first working projector goes to the Lumière (loom-YAIR) brothers from France.  Their projector had a light in it and lenses and it could unwind celluloid film to play it.

The Lumières then made their first movie called ‘Baby’s Breakfast’. It showed Auguste Lumière and his wife feeding their baby daughter!  Not the most exciting topic for the first movie but it was revolutionary at the time.  You can see this movie below.

The Lumières opened the worlds first ever movie house on 28 December 1895.  In 1896 Thomas Edison built his own projector and opened the first movie theatre in America.  In the stretch of time since the Lumières first movie, a lot has changed and celluloid is now being rapidly replaced by digital movies.  The Lumieries however had paved the way for others and as we moved into the early twentieth century, films were already getting more inventive and fantastical, like Georges Méliès wonderful, ‘A Trip to the Moon’ from 1902 seen below: