Thaumatrope Motion Device


The history of animation (and movie-making) begins with a simple device called the thaumatrope. This optical toy was in wide circulation by 1826, and it may have been known much earlier than that. The thaumatrope is the most basic of motion toys. It consists of a disc that is attached to two pieces of string. When twirled, the images on the sides of the disc are perceived together as a single image.

Like all animation devices, the thaumatrope works on the principle of persistence of vision. Persistence of vision is the eye's ability to retain an image for a fraction of a second after the object is gone. In this case, the eye continues to see the two images on either side of the thaumatrope for a split second after each has appeared. As the thaumatrope spins, the series of quick flashes is perceived as one continuous image.


  • Students will understand the phenomenon of persistence of vision, which is the basis for all animation.
  • Materials:

  • Heavy stock paper (index cards are fine), or cardboard
  • Heavy string or yarn
  • Scissors
  • Paper hole punch
  • Crayons or markers
  • The Activity:

    Begin by having the students cut a circle or rectangle from the paper. On one side of the paper, ask them to draw a lightning bolt, and to outline it with a dark color such as black. On the other side, they should draw and color a sky. After they have finished drawing this, they will make one hole on each side of the thaumatrope, approximately in the middle (Have them measure it with a ruler to incorporate math skills). Next, they will cut two pieces of string, approximately 8 inches long. Loop the string through the holes and tie it. SPIN UP A STORM! (Students will see a lightning bolt superimposed onto the sky.)

    Note: The lightning bolt/sky combination is an easy one to start with because you do not have to worry about one of the images being drawn upside down. For thaumatropes that have a definete UP position for viewing, one of the images must be upside down in relation to the other.

    Other thaumatropes to try:

    Side 1: a bird Side 2: a nest (upside down)

    Side 1: a fish Side 2: an ocean habitat (upside down)

    Side 1: Students write the first 2 or 3 letters of their name Side 2: Students write the remainder of name (upside down)

    Side 1: Have students bring (or make) photographs of themselves, or cut pictures out of magazines. Glue to one side of the thaumatrope. Side 2: Draw beard, hats, glasses, or grass, sky, sun, etc. (upside down).

    Thaumatropes do not have to be round or rectangular! Students can also experiment with shape. Colored paper also makes interesting effects; try black paper with brightly colored chalk drawings. See some of the sample thaumatropes included in this packet.

    As you begin making thaumatropes, you will quickly see that the placement of the images involves considerable understanding of spatial relations andmathematics. For this reason, thaumatropes are excellecent tools for teaching these concepts. It is also useful to incorporate thaumatropes into the curriculum by animating subjects being studied. For example, if the class is doing a unit on the desert, students could animate desert landscapes and animals. Also, persistence of vision is a perceptual phenomenon that can be studied as a part of a science unit on light or the eye. See the listing of resources at the end of this unit for suggested books on light.


    Animation: Turning still pictures into moving pictures.

    Motion Toy: Motion toys are the ancestors of today's movies. They were

    Persistence of Vision: A visual phenomenon where an image is retained in the eye for a short period of time, creating an illusion of continuous motion when viewed in rapid succession.

    Thaumatrope: One of the earliest motion toys, the thaumatrope can be traced to 1826, and may be even older. It consists of a disc with pictures on both sides, tied to two pieces of string. When spun, the images on the disc appear together as a single image.

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    art by ashley james