The Richard Balzer Collection


An archive of 19th-century optical toys, shared through the magic of today’s animated GIF.

Optical toys, explains collector Richard Balzer, were conceived through the efforts of scientists from nearly 190 years ago. These early experiments sought to understand the eye and brain, and how they could perceive a series of still images as motion. The resulting optical toys had names such as zoetropes, phenakistascopes, and thaumatropes, using Greek derivatives (-trope and -scope) that mean “viewer.”

To share these toys, Balzer has been working with a young animator named Brian Duffy to create this captivating tumblr of animated GIFs. The images from these toys are photographed, scanned, and then timed in the GIF animation to replicate the speed at which the toy spins. The basic concept of the looping animation is akin to the way a GIF works, and gives us a sense of where animation all began, even before the days of cinema.