William Horner: The History of Animation

William Horner: The History of Animation

William Horner and his iconic Zoetrope are often referenced as being the beginning of animation as we know it. While partially true, this is by no means the whole story.

Since its origin, the moving image has come a long way, undergoing many revolutions as the art form progressed. But how exactly did we arrive at the impeccable standard of animation we enjoy today?

In this article, we’ll create a timeline of animation, moving from the sketched bird in a cage of the classic thaumatrope to the state of the art performance capture in War for the Planet of the Apes – laying out the evolution of the moving image and detailing William Horner’s role as a pioneer of animation as we know it.

To get us started…

What exactly is animation?

In short, techniques of animation aim to create the illusion of movement through the rapid substitution of sequential still images.

In long, well, it’s everything we’re about to discuss.


What came first?

William Horner’s introduction of the zoetrope in 1834 was a major progression in the evolution of animation, but it wasn’t the beginning. The zoetrope was influenced by several devices that pre-date it, some from as far back as the 17th Century.


The Magic Lantern, The Thaumatrope & The Phenakistoscope

These devices had been around for some time, and are the first three significant pieces in a long line of animation tools and toys. Although less well known than the Zoetrope, each was a vital antecedent in the history of animation.

First, back in the 17th Century, came the magic lantern. A very early projector of sorts, it could just about achieve some suggestion of movement.


Then came the thaumatrope, which utilises 2 stills to create a joined image. You may have made one as a child. Here that is in action (plus appropriate old-timey music).

This ‘tech’ progressed into the phenakistoscope. The stroboscopic (that is a word) effect of this device is recognised as being the first instance of fluid motion created using still imagery. Here’s a bit of that…

Then, finally, in 1834, came…

William Horner’s Daedalum (AKA ‘Wheel of the Devil’)

This is the Zoetrope. It just wasn’t known as such until 1867, when it was patented in both the US and the UK by entirely different people, becoming known as the Zoetrope (or, the ‘wheel of life’) from then on.


How does William Horner’s Zoetrope work?

Well, here’s a classic one in action…

Or, if you’d prefer a 3D cake version…

Just like the thaumatrope and phenakistoscope, the Zoetrope (whether classic or cake) relies on the persistence of motion principle to create the illusion of fluid motion.

Originally made of a simple drum and axis, a series of images contained on the inner side of the drum can be seen by several people through slits that are equally spaced around the outer surface of the drum. The faster the rate of the spin, the more real the repeated movement should appear.

By many, the zoetrope is considered to be the clearest explanation of what animation, at its core, actually is.

When still, it offers a clear picture of each frame laid out side by side. When in motion, you see these stills come to life. Clearly showing how the illusion of movement, no matter how complex, can be achieved by breaking down a given motion-sequence into distinct phases.

Okay, just quickly…

The Flip Book

I’d be remised if I didn’t give a quick shout out to this little guy. Patented by John Barnes in 1868, the flip book (or kineograph) has a small place in all our hearts and is another great example of how simple animation can be so affective.

Here’s an example of what a flip book can be…

After this came…

The Praxinoscope

Invented in France in 1877 by Charles-Émile Reynaud, the praxinoscope was one of the final stepping stones in mankind’s exploration with motion picture before arriving at something resembling modern day cinema.

Improving on the zoetrope, the praxinoscope included an inner circle of mirrors that worked to steady the resulting moving images, offering viewers a brighter, clearer and less distorted picture than the zoetrope.

Then, in 1888/9, Reynaud made the final step, patenting…

The Theatre Optique

This crucial step in the world history of animation was capable of projecting longer rolls of images onto a screen, allowing larger viewings of hand-drawn cartoon animations. Reynaud’s first public animation, Pauvre Pierrot, was projected in 1892 at the Musée Grévin in Paris.

However, the progression in this vein was soon over shone by the introduction of the photographic film projector developed by…

The Lumière brothers

The Lumière brothers held their first private screening of their cinematograph, which projected motion pictures onto a screen, on 28 December 1895. Following this, they quickly became known as the fathers of cinema, developing many films for the screen and pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible at the time. Here’s a glimpse…


Leading to…

Motion picture as we know it

With the groundwork set for motion picture as a format, new directors started to get involved, taking the art form in new directions and playing with the medium.

Here’s a great example of this, a silent film directed by J. Stuart Blackton in 1900.

The Enchanted Drawing, J. Blackton (1900)

The next progression soon followed, with the birth of the animated cartoon. Meeting public eyes in 1908, ‘Fantasmagorie’ may not look like much, but it paved the way for all things cartoon.

Fantasmagorie, Émile Cohl, (1908)

Purposively created to appear like chalk drawings on a blackboard (to mimic the style of the vaudeville caricaturists of the time), Cohl’s cartoon consists of roughly 700 drawings, each a traced variant of its predecessor.

Once the cartoon phenomena started, there was little that could stop it. All that it needed to really make a name for itself was…

Synchronised Sound

With cartoons quickly becoming the done thing, various pioneering animation studios started competing to meet the public’s desire for more and more animation.

The next key progression, and what ultimately allowed animators like Disney and Warner Bros to flourish, was the birth of synchronised sound.

1927 saw the first motion picture containing fully synchronised sound and voices. Created by Al Jolson, and titled, ‘The Jazz Singer’, the film premiered in Paris, a city already known for its industry leading ways.

This audible revelation instantly brought change to the world of animation, prompting Disney to push ahead with fully synchronised sound cartoons that would quickly become, and remain iconic.

Disney: Steamboat Willie & the Silly Symphonies (1929)

With Disney keeping a tight ship on their animation style, alongside Warner Bros – who allowed for a more dynamic approach from their animators – the world of animation soon started to grow in various directions.

Animation studios around the world started producing work that would ultimately lead to the birth and boom of animated TV, setting the tone for the rest of the century as animation continued to grow up with the flourishing mediums of cinema and television – the rise of which would bring about the next major movement in animation.

Animated Television

While some shows had featured part animation, the rise of colour television brought the rise of fully animated TV shows and the death of animation shorts seen in theatres.

The Hanna-Barbera animation studio of LA had a lot to do with this, playing a central role in the rise of animated TV.

Although it languishes in relative obscurity,  ‘The Huckleberry Hound Show’ cannot be omitted from an in-depth history of animation – it was the first full-length and fully animated TV show, airing in 1958.  Hanna-Barbera then surpassed this achievement with the first full series of ‘The Flintstones’ airing on prime time TV in 1960.  If it’s been a while since you spent some time with Fred, here’s a little short to bring you back in.

Next on the animation timeline…

The Flintstones – Fred and Barney Bowling

What followed was a…

Time of Experimentation

As technologies, formats, techniques, industries and ideas progressed, animation began to experience a wonderful explosion, with exciting new animations popping up from all angles.

The US and UK were producing all sorts of animated shows that would stay in the minds of the generations they were produced for, as were the Soviet nations who took considerable influence from Dinsey.

If you haven’t already seen Nu Pogodi (AKA the Russian Tom and Jerry), I would definitely recommend.

This period of exploration is one we’re still enjoying. Spanning from Noggin The Nog to Rick and Morty, we have been witness to so many interesting animated ventures it’s hard to keep track, and even harder to catch up on all the ones we’ve missed.

Racking my brain for something that would best encapsulate this era of invention and experimentation, I always came back to this…

Wallace and Gromit – Wrong Trousers (1993)

The pinnacle of stop motion, Wallace and Gromit shows just how far we have come since the Zoetrope. A beautiful thing, made even more so by the painstaking amount of time it took the team at Aardman Studios to create it.

As animation grew up and became more and more mainstream (and far easier for anyone to create) it was inevitable that Hollywood would take it in, to see what it could turn it into.

This lead to the birth of…

CGI Animation

Up until now, the history of animation has primarily centred on the history of 2D animation but since the 1995 premiere of Toy Story, CGI animation has dominated mainstream Hollywood.

As the first fully computer-animated feature film, it showcased the truly emotive power of character animation, and lead the way for the wealth of great animated blockbusters we have enjoyed since. Also, I suppose, for the many terrible animated jaunts (I’m looking at you Sausage Party).

Today, we are spoilt for animation. With so many great and terrible animated TV shows, films, short films, games, and plenty of weird animated experiments made just because – no matter our taste, we can’t move for animation.

So, what’s the next progression?

Most recently, the technology that is transforming our approach to animation is…

Performance capture technology

A process whereby actors can literally move for animation, bringing their every anguish and discretion into the face and body of the animated character they are embodying.

Although this tech has been around for some years now (think Gollum) its potential for bringing animated characters to stunning and detailed life is only just starting to be realised following Andy Serkis’ (surely Oscar nomination worthy) performance as the animated Caesar in…

War for the Planet of the Apes – (2017)

The Zoetrope certainly kicked things off to get us to this point, but William Horner himself surely couldn’t have imagined where his invention would lead us.

Nevertheless, looking at modern animation work – from GIFS to blockbuster movies – with devices like the thaumatrope and William Horner’s Zoetrope firmly in mind offers some perspective on just how far animation has come, and the level of skill involved in its creation at the highest levels.

Today, the little bird in the cage has been released, and now has the potential to be anything we can imagine it to be. With animation studios around the world pushing the boundaries day in and day out, it’s only a matter of time before the next still in the story of animation gets its turn on the screen. I’d keep watching if I were you.

Pebble Studios
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