Some Victorian magic!

One of our popular school workshops is a local history study about life in Victorian times. The children are always fascinated by the original Victorian objects they get to handle, like the elegantly curved carpet beater and the frighteningly well-worn headmaster’s cane. But one object which stands out for many of the children is our reproduction zoetrope.

You may have seen a zoetrope: a spinning disk with sides which have vertical slits cut into the top. A narrow strip of paper is inserted around the inside of the zoetrope, decorated with pictures of something like a horse galloping. Each picture is slightly different from the one next to it. When the children spin the zoetrope and look down into it from above, they see nothing but a blur of grey; but when they try looking through the slits in the sides, they are amazed to see that the horses have come to life and are galloping around the inside of the zoetrope!

Victorian children must have been even more astounded than our schoolchildren today to see the pictures moving, at a time when even still photographs were a new phenomenon. And the parents of these young Victorians had grown up in a time when the only way to record images of places, people and animals was to literally paint or draw them.

The Victorians made huge advances in science, and scientific toys were popular. The zoetrope’s design used a discovery about how human eyes work: Images captured by our eyes are sent to the brain, where they are joined together to form a continuous moving image. So, when looking through the top of the zoetrope, you capture lots of images of the horse at once, and your brain joins these into a grey blur. But if you look through the slits, your eye can only ever see one horse at a time. Your brain stitches each slightly different image of the horse together, so that the horse seems to be moving.

This is called an optical illusion, because you are being tricked into seeing still images as moving ones! The same trick was later used to make films, which for a long time were made from tapes containing many thousands of still photographs.

Another optical toy which was popular in Victorian times was the kaleidoscope. In my first year at a local primary school, we had an ancient one in our classroom. Over the years, hundreds of children must have enjoyed looking into the eyepiece and seeing the beautiful symmetrical patterns made by coloured glass beads and sequins, reflected in the kaleidoscope’s internal mirrors. It took me some time to realise just how few beads and sequins were inside, only about eight!

The humble spinner was also popular with Victorian children. This was a wooden disc with a pointed stick pushed through the middle. With practice, by quickly twisting the stick around, you could make the disc spin for a considerable time. Even the spinner was a chance to create an optical illusion. Patterns on the disc would appear to change once the spinner was in motion – a spiral would become a series of circles within each other, or a series of red and yellow stripes would merge to become orange.

The Victorians are often portrayed as severe, but there is plenty of evidence that they looked for opportunities to use new science and inventions to have fun and make exciting toys.