9 Major Milestones in the History of Moving Images From Zoetrope to GIF

Moving pictures, have a very long and very interesting history; Here are some of the most important milestones from the Zoetrope to the GIF.
Christopher McFadden

Motion pictures, or movies, are as much a part of our daily lives as eating and sleeping. But, interestingly, they have been around for quite a long time. 

Here we will take a very brief, whistlestop tour of the development of motion pictures, from their earliest days to the modern GIF. Here we look at some of the most notable milestones in motion picture history.

Please note this is not intended to be a comprehensive history but merely a very quick overview. Many major milestones have been omitted purely for brevity, but feel free to discuss them in the comments. 


What are some of the major milestones in the history of movies?

So, without further ado, here are some of the most notable milestones in the history of moving pictures. This list is far from exhaustive and is in no particular order.

1. The Phenakistiscope generated some of the very first moving pictures

Motion pictures work via a phenomenon called "persistence of vision". This was first described in an 1820s article by Peter Mark Roget.

The article, called "Explanation of an optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel when seen through vertical apertures", this article effectively kick-started the whole thing.

A little later, in the early-1830s, a Belgian physicist named Joseph Plateau along with an Austrian professor of practical geometry, Simon Stampfer, invented something called the "Phenakistiscope".

This basic device was the first known practical device to create the illusion of fluid motion of a horse. It consisted of a series of printed images around a circular disk.

When spun, it would appear to the observer that the static images were actually in motion as they looked at it.

2. The Zoetrope was another example of early motion pictures

motion pictures history zoetrope
Modern replica of a typical Victorian zoetrope, Source: Andrew Dunn/Wikimedia Commons

Around about the same time, another device was developed that would simulate real motion to a human observer. Called the "Zoetrope", this device was similar to the "Phenakistoscope" but had drawings of things in motion inside a rotating drum.

The observer would view the images through a narrow vertical slit in the side of the drum. As the drum was spun, it would appear as if something was indeed moving inside the device. 

A toy version of it was introduced in the 1860s and would become a very popular plaything for many people. 

3. Chronophotography was one of the next big leaps forward for moving pictures

motion picture history chronophotography
An 1886 chronophotographic study of horse motion, by Etienne-Jules Marey, SourceEtienne-Jules Marey/Wikimedia Commons

During the late Victorian period, a photographic technique called "Chronophotography" was developed. This technique was able to capture multiple phases of movements of any subject -- like a human walking downstairs.

The earliest uses of "Chronophotography" was for the scientific study of locomotion. But they were also used to help animal handlers or for reference material for the artists of the day.

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While it was not initially intended for use as entertainment, the results of the technique would find other uses in the embryonic motion picture industry. The quest to develop true motion pictures was now set, well, in motion. 

4. One of the first motion pictures was recorded in the 1870s

Another major milestone in the history of motion pictures was the work of one Eadweard Muybridge. In the late 1870s, using a battery of 24 or so cameras, he managed to record images of a horse in motion. 

Called "Sallie Gardner at a Gallop", he later projected it on a screen at the California School of Fine Arts. This was officially the earliest known motion picture ever in history. 

An entirely new industry was about to be born. It would take the 20th Century by storm.

5. The world's first actors on film were recorded and played to the public in the 1890s

motion pictures history blacksmith scene
Still from the 1890s movie "Blacksmith Scene", Source: IMDB

Jumping forward in time a little, another major milestone in motion picture history occurred in 1893. A film, called "Blacksmith Scene", was created by William Kennedy Dickson. 

It is played using a "Kinetoscope" which was an early motion picture exhibition device for playing moving pictures. They were designed to be viewed by an individual through a tiny peephole viewer window at the top of the device.

The film was shown to the public on the 9th of May, 1893, and is the earliest known example of actors performing a role in a motion picture. 

6. The first hand-colored film appeared in 1895

motion picture history vitascope
Vitascope Hall was the world's first cinema, Source: Michael Beschloss/Twitter

A few years later, yet another milestone in the history of motion pictures occurred in 1895. Called  "Annabelle Serpentine Dance", it is the earliest known example of a hand-colored film in history. 

The same year, Charles Francis Jenkins would display and patent the first true film projector. The following year, the first-ever building dedicated to the exclusive use of showing motion pictures opened its doors in New Orleans.

Called Vitascope Hall, it was converted from a vacant store building. The modern cinema had been born. 

7. The early 20th Century saw a massive boom in motion picture development

The early 20th Century saw a literal boom in the motion picture industry. Many new techniques like stop-motion, true color film, and even early 3D were pioneered at this time.

Cinemas started to become commonplace in many large cities, and eventually sound would be added to -- much to the astonishment of the public at the time. Photography and motion pictures would also begin to find other uses, like over the battlefields of WW1, and animations would become a thing.

Some of the biggest names in motion pictures would also be born during this time, like Disney, Universal, Paramount, and 20th Century Fox, to name but a few. Motion pictures were here to stay.

8. Visual effects, modern 3D and CGI were another major development

motion picture history star wars
Still from the opening scene from Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, Source: EverythingSW66/Twitter

Jumping forward almost half a century (not to mention glossing over many other milestones for brevity), one of the next biggest developments in motion pictures was the release of "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope". Featured pioneering work in visual effects, it would lead to the founding of Industrial Light and Magic.

This would spark an arms race of sorts to develop ever more amazing and fantastic special visual and sound effects for films. Many new techniques would be developed as a consequence, including computer-generated-imagery (CGI) and modern 3D films.

While the latter had existed since the earliest days of motion pictures, and undergone something of a golden age during the 1950s-1960s, it had gone out of fashion. With the aid of modern techniques, like CGI, 3D would see something of a revival in the latter quarter of the 20th Century to the modern-day.

9. The rise and rise of GIFs

history of motion pictures GIF
GIFs, we salute you!

And finally, we will finish our tour of the history of motion pictures, perhaps oddly, with GIFs. Now something of an occupational hazard on the internet, GIFs, or "graphics interchange format" to give them their full name, have really come of age. 

They were first developed in the late-1980s by Steve Wilhite of CompuServe and have since taken the internet by storm. Calling back to the early days of motion pictures, these heavily compressed files consist of a series of image stills that can be played to simulate animation via a timed delay.

They were originally developed to enable the upload of images in a compressed form so slow modems could upload them easily. GIFs would soon be used by many internet users as part of their website design, either as placeholders or as actually graphical design features. 

But the inherent fun that could be had with this medium soon enabled internet users to develop a sub-culture of sorts by creating and sharing them widely. Today they are some of the most widely watched "films" in the world.  

But what will the future hold for motion pictures? Perhaps newer developments, like VR and AR, might just be the next leap in motion picture history?

Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see what happens over the next few decades. 

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