During the Enlightenment, scientific discoveries and achievements abounded. Scholars explored everything from celestial bodies to microscopic organisms. In the 1820s, scientists came up with the theory of persistence of vision, which explains how the brain perceives separate images in motion as one cohesive image. What does this theory have to do with toys? Come spin the wheel of life with us…

It may not look like much at first glance, but this drum-shaped zoetrope (Greek for “wheel of life”) is one of the stars of our Optical Toys exhibit. An early animation toy, the zoetrope is comprised of a metal cylinder with cut out slots attached to a wooden pedestal. An interchangeable paper strip with printed illustrations sits inside the drum. To activate the animation, you simply spin the zoetrope, look through the slots, and voila! The magic of persistence of vision takes over and the printed strip appears to animate. In the decades that followed, this technology gave life to the famous Steamboat Willie and other early cartoons.