Beale's Choreutoscope (round 1866)

The Choreutoscope is one of the most important devices in Pre-Cinematic history.

For the first time, three decennia before dawn of modern cinema, the Maltese-cross mechanism and one-tooth gearwheel was used to enable the fast subsequent projection of slightly different painted "still" images.

During projection the image stands still; when the mechanism is transporting the glass plate, a synchronized guillotine shutter avoid the light shining through.

Both events are the key solution for creating the illusion of movement in "lifeless" projected images.


A choreutoscope shows six, a film thousands still images, all one by one placed for a very short time motionless in front of the projecting lens.
The wondrous effect of bringing these lifeless images to live with the aid of this key machanism results in an illusion of movement thanks to the "Phi- effect", enabling our brain to fill in the missing parts.

Retinal persistence
does exist but is not responsable for the illusion of movement as thought by
Joseph Plateau, Belgian scientist and inventor of the phenakistiscope, the first (not projection) device able to show movement using sequential images. Visual masking frees us from this "persistence of vision" and enhance the illusion of fluent movement on the screen.

Obviously, the Choreutoscope "film" is extreamely short (only six images) and the mouvement is poor due to the lack of sufficient speed between the change of images caused by turning a hand operated crank-handle. However, with this principle a major cinematographic technique (still used in todays projectors) was born before the birth of modern film.

Choreutoscope slide circa 1866

Huygens, sketch for animated skeleton slide 1659

University Library Leiden, Netherlands

Huygens 1659 animated skeleton sketch

A precursor of the Choreutoscope

A set with a series of different slide subjects was available for projection with the choreutoscope. The mechanisme was used as a magic lantern accessory and transformed the lantern into a Maltese-cross projecting device.

See the "Devices of Wonder" web site for an animated interactive Choreutoscope.

As in early themes for the magic lantern, the Choreutoscope slides also adhered to the grotesque and the macabre. It's worth mentioning and emphasize the resemblance with Huygens' (1659) early sketch for the design of an animated skeleton slide, 200 years before the choreutoscope's similar and most popular subject. The "Dancing Skeleton"

The inspiration source for Huygens' "Dancing Skeleton" was Holbein's "Dance of Death". The latter was based on the medieval fresco, the "Danse Macabre" painted in Paris' now lost Cemetery of the Innocents between 1424 and 1425.

Although as explained above, the Choreutoscope is a major pre-cinematic device, this most clever mechanism was not the first instrument able to project animated images on a screen. Ingenious designed magic lantern slides conjured-up moving images on screens as well in smoke curtains more than two century's before dangerous nitrate images came to live subsequently replaced by acetate & safety-film as we known them today. The current digital era is threatening and fastly replacing the bearer of new and reproduced vintage films. For this, pre-cinema is - and vintage film will become - an important part of our social history. E-Mail Early Visual Media your interesting information.

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