What is a thaumatrope?

Thaumatrope means ‘turning wonder’ in Ancient Greek. It is an optical toy that uses a spinning disc to merge two separate pictures to create the illusion of one complete still picture.

The first known thaumatrope was invented by John Ayrton Paris, an English doctor, who used it to demonstrate a theory he called ‘persistence of vision’ to the Royal College of Physicians in London.

Research: The theory of the persistence of vision has since been disproved. What new theories have been developed in its place?

Activity

Before you make your very own thaumatrope, you can experiment with one we prepared earlier. Print out the Shaun the Sheep thaumatrope and follow steps 3-5 below. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can make your own from scratch.

Brainstorm ideas for pictures that can be separated into two key parts, for example, a bird and a nest, or a person and their bicycle, a spider and a web.

Tip: Stuck for ideas? Have a look at all the great examples on this Pinterest page.

Materials

  • a blank piece of A4 cardboard or thick paper – preferably white

  • a ring ruler or something circular to trace two circles on your cardboard/ paper

  • a small stick, blunt skewer, wooden chopstick or firm drinking straw

  • pencils or felt-tip pens

  • glue

  • adhesive tape

Create:

  1. Trace the outline of your two circles on your piece of cardboard or paper. Try to use a fair amount of your A4 piece so your thaumatrope isn’t too small.

  2. In circle one, draw your first image, and in circle two, draw the other image. Practise first on a scrap piece of paper and trace your second image over the first one, so they are aligned.

  3. Cut out your circles.

  4. Place the stick or straw onto one card and tape it firmly, then stick the two cards together (with the stick in between) using glue, making sure that your two pictures are aligned.

  5. After it’s all dried, hold the stick between the palms of your hands and quickly rotate it back and forth.

If you’d like a visual guide to help, follow this link to YouTube.

Experiment and report: Work with your partner to test different twirling speeds to discover how different speeds affect the illusion of motion. Discuss your findings and answer the following questions:

  1. Did the illusion work when you spun your stick slowly?

  2. Did it work when you spun it really fast?

  3. Describe the spinning speed where the illusion worked best. Explain why you think it worked best at this speed?

Experiment further: Make another thaumatrope with a new set of images. Repeat steps 1 – 4 but instead of using a stick, use a hole puncher to create two holes on the left and right hand side (near the edge) and thread a piece of string through both. You can then wind up your thaumatrope and see if this method works better than your first thaumatrope.

Next module

Make a zoetrope

More info