HOW DOES IT WORK?
HISTORY AND WORKINGS OF THE STROBOTOP
We call the Strobotop™ a "Retrotech™" toy, because, while it uses current cutting edge technology, it is based on classic animation toys that were devised as far back as two centuries ago. The idea of arranging a number of different images around a disk and making them appear to come to life by spinning it is not new at all.
The Phenakistiscope ("Deceptive Viewer"), invented in 1830 by Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau (and simultaneously by an Austrian, Simon Stampfer), was the first device to produce motion from a sequence of images on a spinning disk. Exactly like the Strobotop™, a series of images, each slightly different than the one before it, was arranged in a circle on the disk. The disc was pinned through its center to a handle, and when it was held up to a mirror and rotated rapidly, a series of cutout slots between the images permitted the user to view the reflected mirror-images through them. Instead of the images blurring when the disk was spun, the slots, sweeping close by the observer's eye, had the astonishing effect of momentarily "freezing" the images, one by one, in rapid succession, thus creating the illusion of realistic movement in the observer's mind.
The Phenakistiscope was limited to individual viewing. Its successor, the Zoetrope ("Wheel of Life"), invented in 1834 by British mathematician William Horner, took the technique a step farther. This familiar spinning drum-like device, also with viewing slots placed between successive images, enabled several observers to view the moving scene simultaneously. There were two places to position the images: on a strip of paper wrapped inside the perimeter of the drum, or, again, like the Strobotop™, on a circular disk placed on the floor of the Zoetrope. Even today, the Zoetrope is frequently revived as a plastic or cardboard toy and is a favorite of animated cartoonists the world over.
In 1877, viewing slots were replaced by mirrors, which made the animated images sharper and clearer than ever. The Praxinoscope, devised by the brilliant French artist-inventor Emile Reynaud in 1877, contained a multifaceted mirrored hub that reflected the images on paper strips or disks. A special ‘praxinoscope theatre’ version of the toy, built into a small box, used reflected background cards to show the miniature performers against changing backdrops. There was even a full-size public version projected on a screen, the Théatre Optique, featuring longer sequences painted onto a belt of transparencies—the first motion picture film.
But hand-drawn animations were not enough. The emergence of photography pushed things further. Would-be aviators wanted to slow down the flight of birds so that they could examine the nature of the wing movements. Gymnasts aspired to see the precise action of the limbs of athletes, to better understand how the human body worked. To this end, inventors devised not only methods of photographing such movement, but methods of displaying these images in motion.
The first technical success was achieved when Leland Stanford, race horse owner and former governor of California, commissioned famous photographer Eadweard Muybridge to photograph a horse in motion. Stanford wanted to determine whether or not a horse had all four feet off the ground at one time—a question of hot debate in the 1870s. Muybridge, using a series of cameras, each fitted with a slotted shutters that dropped by the lenses one after the other, created a series of photos that not only proved a horse was "airborne" for a portion of its gallop, but set the scientific world buzzing.
With his invention of the Zoopraxiscope, a projector that used a rotating slotted shutter and interchangeable rotating glass disks with pictures all around them—again, almost identical to Strobotop™ disks—Muybridge was able to reanimate his groundbreaking photographs for audiences around the globe. His work caused quite a stir in scientific circles. And the depiction of animals and humans in motion by Frederick Remington, Thomas Eakins and all other artists changed forever.
Around the same time in Paris, French physiologist Etienne Jules Marey invented his own methods of photographing motion, again using rotating disk-like devices. By positioning a slotted rotating disk in front of an open camera lens, he was able to photograph a series of frozen subject movements onto one single photographic plate. And his "machine gun" style camera, loaded with a disk containing a series of unexposed photographic plates arranged in a circle, enabled him to capture birds in flight. Like Muybridge, Marey's photographs profoundly changed the way artists depicted subjects in motion, as evidenced by the paintings of the Italian Futurists and Marcel Duchamp.
These and similar optical motion picture toys and devices led to the invention of movies in the 1890s. Even today, movie projectors use a slotted or butterfly-shaped rotating disk as a shutter to project crisp images onto the theater screen. And the invention that led to television, also in the 1890s was also a disk, riddled with holes, spun in front of an object while a photoelectric cell recorded changes in light.
The Strobotop™ is similar to the inventions mentioned above in that it uses a spinning disk with a series of images arrange in a circle around it. But to see the images come to life, instead of viewing them through slots or in mirrors, the Strobotop's handheld LightPhase Animator enables you to "freeze" each image with rapidly-flickering short pulses of light, like a flashbulb taking a crystal clear picture of each image as it speeds by, one right after the other. As you adjust the dial, the rate of light flicker changes. When the rate of flicker matches the rate of the images spinning by on the disk, the succession of images, delivered to your eye in rapid succession, creates the illusion of motion.
The originator of this "strobe animation" technique was Harold Edgerton, a professor of electrical engineering at MIT University. In 1931, Edgerton used a rapidly flashing strobe light to study machine parts, such as broken gears, while they were in motion—a great help to industry. His stunning photographs of falling water droplets, speeding bullets suspended in air and athletes frozen in motion belong in the pantheon with the images of Muybridge and Marey.
Artists today continue to explore the art of strobe animation on a grand scale. Sculptor Gregory Barsamian creates mind-boggling, room sized, strobe-animated zoetropes for museums and other public places. Japanese artist Toshio Iwai has created a number of astonishing animated displays using strobelights and related techniques. Strobe light and related animated artwork and advertising have been installed in public subway systems by artist/inventors Joshua Spodek (USA) and Bradley Caruk (Canada).
Written by Stephen Herbert with Rufus Butler Seder
Want to see a Zoetrope and a Praxinoscope in action?