Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau: His most famous invention changed cinema

The Belgian physicist made pictures move with his “phénakistiscope.” 

man walking on spinning wheel

Motion pictures that amaze and inspire with complex cinematography had rather humble beginnings as tiny images rotating around a disk. For that, we can thank Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau, one of the key inventors of the phénakistiscope.

Plateau, a Belgian physicist and mathematician, is the subject of Monday’s Google Doodle, honoring what would be his 218th birthday. Fascinated by how our eyes work, Plateau wrote his doctoral dissertation on how the retina turns light into images.

portrait of Joseph Plateau
Joseph Plateau, born October 14, 1801.
The phénakistiscope Google Doodle that appeared on Google's homepage on October 14, 2019.

Plateau went on to invent (or perhaps co-invent) a nifty device that made pictures move. The phénakistiscope is basically two discs that rotate in opposite directions. The front disc has small windows carved out, while the back has a series of pictures, like a man in different, successive stages of walking.

As both discs turn, our eyes see the image “moving.”  

Plateau came out with the gadget, which he also eventually referred to as a fantascope in December of 1832.

Plateau's invention gave way to modern cinema. 

The name came later, coined in the French newspaper Le Figaro in June 1833, and it implies visual trickery, which is one way to think about movies. The newspaper explained that phénakistiscope is from the Greek word phenakisticos, or “to deceive,” and óps, meaning “eye” or “face.” In other words, an optical illusion.

The invention is seen as a precursor to cinematography.

Plateau went on to teach physics at Ghent University and was living in Ghent when he died in 1883. Later in life, Plateau lost his eyesight, which he blamed on an experiment during which he stared at the sun for 25 seconds. Researchers believe now that his vision loss was caused by chronic uveitis, a type of inflammation.

The phénakistiscope, invented by Plateau in 1832.

Much of the information we have about Plateau’s life is courtesy of his son-in-law and biographer, Gustave Van der Mensbrugghe. Naturally, Plateau is the star of his own short book. But the phénakistiscope, it turns out, may have had several fathers, perhaps inventing it simultaneously.

Austrian professor of practical geometry Simon Stampfer also came out with a similar device, the same month as Plateau’s. And notes and publications by British physician Peter Mark Roget, from a few years earlier, describe a very similar devise and visual phenomenon.

Still, Plateau’s birthday and a throwback Google Doodle are reminders of how far motion pictures have come. From the little images moving around in a circle to the insane special effects in Harry Potter, our retinas still trick us into seeing some pretty rad optical illusions.