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.