There is nothing quite like discovering the SuperGenius mind exposed in action.  Today, I introduce you to Tim Wheatley — a student at University College Falmouth studying Digital Animation — and his Amazing, real life, Cyclotrope!

The Cyclotrope creates animation by spinning a bicycle tire by hand that gives the eye the illusion of movement with strategically placed items and incrementally drawn images.

Here’s the official PR blurp:

The cyclotrope is a cycle of 18 images that is spun at a certan speed so that the frame rate of the camera filming it gives the illusion of animation.

Now, I’ve ruined the illusion by posting static images taken from the demonstration video — so here’s what the Cyclotrope looks like in action:

The Cyclotrope reminds us how easily our eyes can be fooled.  Entertain the eye and the body will follow.

The Cyclotrope owes its existence to Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope:

The first big invention to come out of Edison’s new lab was motion pictures. In October 1888, he began working on a machine he called a “kinetoscope,” writing that he was “experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reporduction of things in motion, and in such a form as to be both cheap, practical, and convenient.

By 1892, the Kinetoscope was born:

It consisted of an upright wooden cabinet, 18 in. x 27 in. x 4 ft. high, with a peephole with magnifying lenses in the top…Inside the box the film, in a continuous band of approximately 50 feet, was arranged around a series of spools. A large, electrically driven sprocket wheel at the top of the box engaged corresponding sprocket holes punched in the edges of the film, which was thus drawn under the lens at a continuous rate. Beneath the film was an electric lamp, and between the lamp and the film a revolving shutter with a narrow slit. As each frame passed under the lens, the shutter permitted a flash of light so brief that the frame appeared to be frozen. This rapid series of apparently still frames appeared, thanks to the persistence of vision phenomenon, as a moving image.

The key to the hand-woven magic of the Kinetoscope is in its determined exploitation of persistence of vision.  In standard movies, 24 frames per second give the eye a sense of movement.  The eye can’t interpret 24 separate images in a second, and so to compensate, the mind blends one image into the next, and you have instant “motion” in a static environment.

The Cyclotrope is able to pull of a sense of animation by only using 18 “images” per second to fool the eye in the persistence of vision phenomenon. What’s great about watching the video is you can sense that magical moment right when your eye sees individual spinning parts and then the next instant when the speed of the wheel is just right and your eye makes those individual images into a seamless whole of actual movement. You are left to realize how the beauty of Edison’s original genius was never more pristine or raw or genuine as you see it in sprocketed action caught along the spokes of the Amazing Cyclotrope.


  1. I love the magic moment you mention when the video tricks you from seeing images to seeing something in motion. Great magic trick that never gets old.

Comments are closed.