Don’t look a GIF horse in the mouth: short, shareable animations have been delighting humans for centuries

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

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

GIFs (short for Graphics Interchange Format)

Steve Wilhite, a computer scientist working at CompuServe is acknowledged 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 several frames or images into a single file, which plays like a short clip.

Compressed they are small file sizes; GIFs are easily shared on email and social media.  

While most can share in the delight of a well-chosen GIF, there is a long-running heated disagreement over how to pronounce the acronym, tracked by Time (this COSMOS journalist had been pronouncing 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 sharable animation made in analogue. Here we flick through a few.

Matthias brown lp gif by traceloops - find & share on giphy
Ghost GIF / Credit: Matthias Brown

Thaumatropes (from the Greek for ‘wonder turner’)

Dating back as early as 1827, a thaumatrope is a two-sided disc which creates a simple animation when spun.

The device is a disc with different but related pictures on each side and strings attached at opposite ends. When those strings are wound up tightly, and then released, the disc spins creating a simple animation. 

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

Thaumatrope / Credit: Internet Archive Book Images

Phenakistoscopes (from the Greek for ‘deceitful viewer’)

In 1832 an analogue form of the modern GIF was made by spinning a circular card on its centre. 

In 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 shifting locations within each slice, using vector graphics. Each slice of the circle acts like a frame in an animation. Between each slice is a black radial slit.

When the circle is spun on its centre, and its reflection viewed using a mirror, the effect creates the illusion of smoothly moving images like a short, repeating video. 

Phenakistoscope 1
Phenakistoscope / Credit: Flickr user trialsanderrors

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

Zoetropes (from the Greek for ‘life turn’)

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

A larger cylinder like a drum has slits cut into the sides for viewing. Strips of sequential images spin inside the cylinder so that the viewer sees one after the other.

The technology was popularised by American business magnate, game pioneer and publisher, Milton Bradley in 1866 who sold zoetropes as a toy with replaceable picture strips.

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

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

Find out more about phenakistoscopes and GIFs on the 2022 SCINEMA International Science Film Festival

For more on the history and science of the phenakistoscope (and instructions on how to make one) watch the 2022 SCINEMA International Science Film festival entry, Animated GIFS: Celebrating Scientific Genius, by registering to view it for free on the SCINEMA website. 

Follow the prompts on the email you receive and you’ll find Animated GIFS: Celebrating Scientific Genius in the Animation / Experimental playlist. You can watch all the films until August 31 2022 when the festival ends. 

Jumping little prince gif by sanni lahtinen - find & share on giphy
GIF based on a phenakistoscope / Credit: Sanni Lahtinen on GIPHY

Please login to favourite this article.