A zoetrope is a device that produces the illusion of motion from a rapid succession of static pictures. The term zoetrope is from the Greek words ζωή zoe, "life" and τρόπος tropos, "turn". It may be taken to mean "live turning" or "animation".

The zoetrope consists of a cylinder with slits cut vertically in the sides. On the inner surface of the cylinder is a band with images from a set of sequenced pictures. As the cylinder spins, the user looks through the slits at the pictures across. The scanning of the slits keeps the pictures from simply blurring together, and the user sees a rapid succession of images, producing the illusion of motion. From the late 20th century, devices working on similar principles have been developed, named analogously as linear zoetropes and 3D zoetropes, with traditional zoetropes referred to as "cylindrical zoetropes" if distinction is needed.


The earliest known zoetrope was created in China around 100 BC by the inventor Ding Huan (丁緩). Ding Huan's device, driven by convection, hung over a lamp and was called zhao hua zhi guan (the pipe which makes fantasies appear). The rising air turned vanes at the top of the canopy, from which a circular band of translucent paper or mica panels hung. Images of birds and animals were painted on the translucent paper. When the device was spun at the right speed, pictures painted on the panels would appear to move.

The modern zoetrope was invented in 1833 by British mathematician William George Horner. He called it the "daedalum", most likely as a reference to the Greek myth of Daedalus, though it was popularly referred to as "the wheel of the devil". The daedalum failed to become popular until the 1860s, when it was patented by both English and American makers, including Milton Bradley. The American developer William F. Lincoln named his toy the "zoetrope", meaning "wheel of life". Almost simultaneously, similar inventions were made independently in Belgium by Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau (the phenakistoscope) and in Austria by Simon von Stampfer (the stroboscope).

The zoetrope worked on the same principles as the phenakistoscope, but the pictures were drawn on a strip which could be set around the bottom third of a metal drum, with the slits now cut in the upper section of the drum. The drum was mounted on a spindle and spun; viewers looking through the slits would see the cartoon strip form a moving image. The faster the drum was spun, the smoother the animation appeared.

The earliest projected moving images were displayed using a magic lantern zoetrope. This crude projection of moving images occurred as early as the 1860s.

The praxinoscope was an improvement on the zoetrope that became popular toward the end of the 19th century, displacing the zoetrope for practical uses; a magic lantern praxinoscope was demonstrated in the 1880s.

For displaying moving images, zoetropes were displaced by more advanced technology, notably film and later television. However, in the early 1970s, Sega used a mechanism similar to an ancient zoetrope in order to create electro-mechanical arcade games that would resemble later first-person video games.

Since the late 20th century, zoetropes have seen occasional use for artwork, entertainment, and other media use, notably as linear zoetropes on subway lines, and from the early 21st century some 3D zoetropes.