These Proto-GIFs of the 19th Century Put Today's GIFs to Shame

They're cheeky and creepy and totally mesmerizing.
The Richard Balzer Collection

GIFs as we know them may date from the 1980s; as analog concepts, though, they're much older than that. The principles of motion-making were recognized by Euclid. Starting in the 1800s, scientists and inventors and hobbyists began experimenting with technologies that would fool the eye into perceptions of motion. In 1832, the Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau invented a device he called the phenakistoscope (from the Greek phenakizein, "to deceive or cheat")—a rod-mounted disc that, when spun, created the illusion of motion. There was also the thaumatrope, a double-sided card that simulated motion when it was twirled between two pieces of string. There was also, in 1879, Muybridge's famous zoopraxiscope

As new technologies created new venues for motion graphics, artists eagerly took advantage of them. The earliest GIFs—GIFs in spirit, before there were GIFs in practice—ranged in content, like their digital counterparts, from curiosity to artistry, from the banal to the brilliant. Which is a fact appreciated by Richard Balzer, who has spent the past 40 years accumulating a collection of early animation technologies. Balzer, the subject of a great profile in The Verge, has spent the past five of those years curating a virtual museum of his collection—including drawings and photographs of the 19th-century animations he’s gathered, as well as images of the technologies themselves. And he has begun converting those early moving images into GIFs that he has, in turn, posted to his Tumblr.

The animations range, awesomely, in style and tone. There's the slightly cheeky: 

The Richard Balzer Collection

And the amazingly creepy: 

The Richard Balzer Collection

And the stuff of waking nightmares: 

The Richard Balzer Collection

But there's also the quirky: 

The Richard Balzer Collection

And the funny:

The Richard Balzer Collection

And the weird-but-oddly-mesmerizing:

The Richard Balzer Collection

You can see, in these images, how new and exciting motion-picture technologies were to the artists who made use of them: These are GIFs that, as GIFs will do, celebrate movement itself. Balzer, whose day job is organizational consulting and who is also a senior fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School, tells The Verge that he decided to digitize his collection in large part to share it with larger audiences. Which has an appropriate circularity: Here's a graphic technology that was new in the 19th century, reinvigorated using a graphic technology that was new in the 20th. 

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple


What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?


The Faces of #BlackLivesMatter

Scenes from a recent protest in New York City


Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life

The Supreme Court justice talks gender equality and marriage.


The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Technology

Just In