What is a Thaumatrope and How Do I Make One?

Knoji reviews products and up-and-coming brands we think you'll love. In certain cases, we may receive a commission from brands mentioned in our guides. Learn more.
A thaumatrope is a Victorian age toy that uses optical illusion to put two images into one. Before the invention of the moving picture, TV or video games there was the thaumatrope, a visual toy that should be given a second look. Making one is easy fun,

Invented in 1825 by Dr. John Aryton Paris, the thaumatrope became an instant phenomenon.  Using science to look like magic, the thaumatrope tricks the eyes by spinning two images so quickly the human eye cannot follow one individually and instead combines the two.

There are many different kinds of thaumatropes, but two slightly different ones are easy to make and easy to use.

You will need:

  • White card stock or light weight white particle board, four circles about three to four inches across
  • String, two pieces about eight inches each
  • Scissors
  • pencil
  • Black pen or marker, bright colored pens or markers for contrasting colors
  • A glass or roll of tape to use as a template for the circles.  I usually use a roll of masking tape.
  • A straight, long, thin stick like a barbecue skewer or a pencil.
  • Glue stick
  • Stapler
  • Paper hole punch

The First Step: The Pictures

  • For both thaumatropes you will two circles.  Use the glass or the masking tape roll to trace out two identical circles.  This will be the front and the back of the thaumatrope.
  • Using a pencil make a small object, like a fish, in the center of the first circle.  Make it small, with lots of room.  It’s really important to make it small.
  • On the other circle, make a large fish bowl with the pencil.  Try to fill most of the circle, but definitely make it large enough that the fish on the other circle would fit inside.  Also, make sure its centered.
  • Use contrasting colors on the fish and fishbowl.  For example, make the fish a golden orange, and the fishbowl a turquoise blue.  Outline them both with black.

Thaumatrope on a Stick:

  • Carefully place the two circles onto the stick, matching up the edges as close as possible.  You can glue them together with the glue stick, or you can staple them together over the stick, using the stapler four times, twice on top of the circle on either side of the stick, very close to the stick and twice on the bottom of the circle on either side of the stick, very close to the stick.  I like to staple them so that I can change out the picture for the same stick.
  • Roll the end of the stick between your palms, very quickly.  The eye will ‘fool’ you into seeing both pictures at once, in this case a fish in a bowl.  Using contrasting colors really helps the viewer pick up on the illusion.

Pictured is a classic bird in a cage thaumatrope

Classic Thaumatrope on a String:

  • Carefully place your two circles together, the bowl on one side and the fish on the other, glue them together.
  • Give them a moment to dry and then, using the hole punch, make two holes, one on the right and one on the left, about 1/8 inch in from the edge.
  • Double your string and tie the ends together, so that you have two loops of string.
  • Fit one through the left hand hole and loop it together through itself, and do the same to the right.
  • Hold the left side in your left hand the right in the right hand, and twist the disk in the middle.
  • Once it is twisted you should be able to open and close your fingers inside the loops to spin the disk, taking turns with each hand.  The fish will then appear in the bowl! 

1 comment

Kathleen Murphy
Posted on Apr 25, 2012