Grand Illusions: Large-Scale Optical Toys and Contemporary Scientific Spectacle

Meredith A. Bak



Nineteenth-century optical toys that showcase illusions of motion such as the phenakistoscope, zoetrope, and praxinoscope, have enjoyed active “afterlives” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Contemporary incarnations of the zoetrope are frequently found in the realms of fine art and advertising, and they are often much larger than their nineteenth-century counterparts. This article argues that modern-day optical toys are able to conjure feelings of wonder and spectacle equivalent to their nineteenth-century antecedents because of their adjustment in scale. Exploring a range of contemporary philosophical toys found in arts, entertainment, and advertising contexts, the article discusses various technical adjustments made to successfully “scale up” optical toys, including the replacement of hand-spun mechanisms with larger sources of motion (such as a subway train or a motor) and the use of various means such as architectural features and stroboscopic lights to replace traditional shutter mechanisms such as the zoetrope’s dark slots. Critical consideration of scale as a central feature of these installations reconfigures the relationship between audience and device. Large-scale adaptations of optical toys revise the traditional conception of the user, who is able to tactilely manipulate and interact with the apparatus, instead positing a viewer who has less control over the illusion’s operation and is instead a captive audience surrounded by the animation. It is primarily through their adaptation of scale that contemporary zoetropes successfully elicit wonder as scientific spectacles from their audiences today. 


zoetrope; art; advertisement; large-scale; audience

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TEORIE VĚDY / THEORY OF SCIENCE – journal for interdisciplinary studies of science is published twice a year by the Institute of Philosophy of the Czech Academy of Sciences (Centre for Science, Technology, and Society Studies). ISSN 1210-0250 (Print) ISSN 1804-6347 (Online) MK ČR E 18677 web: /// email: