Forty years ago, Richard “Dick” Balzer saw his very first magic lantern – an early image projector invented in the 1600s. This encounter would prove to be the start of an intense preoccupation with early animation technology. Following this discovery, Balzer began collecting magic lanterns and other optical toys, eventually amassing thousands of illustrations and machines that can now be found at his Boston-area home. His collection includes literature concerning the early animation machinery, as well as 150-year-old optical toys like henakistiscopes, zoetropes, praxinoscopes, and other “scopes” and “tropes” derived from the Greek words for “viewer.”
According to Balzer’s site, “There was a period, the last seventy five years of the 19th century, when scientific experimentation based on the phenomenon of ‘the persistence of vision’ in which the brain retains the impression of an object for a fraction of a second after its disappearance creating the possibility of apparent motion.” These early animation toys and machines sought to merge images to create uninterrupted motion. “We’re all interested in seeing movement,” says Balzer. “It was a different time, but the same challenge: How do you make things move?” These early animated loop illustration toys and machines mark the beginnings of the animated loop file we frequently encounter on the internet – the gif.
Five years ago, Balzer began digitizing his collection with the help of LA-based animator, Brian Duffy because he wished to share the early animations with a larger audience. So far, Balzer and Duffy have digitized only a fraction of the collection (which they periodically upload on Tumblr) due to the trial-and-error process involved in getting the speed of each animation just right. The creators of the early toys and machines probably never anticipated that their images would become as widely and immediately available as they currently are through the work of dedicated people like Balzer and Duffy.
The Verge notes, “Balzer refrains from theorizing about how his archival work may influence others, or what it might say about digital art and visual vocabulary today, noting that there are several other organizations undertaking similar efforts. His goal, he says, is to simply share his passion with as wide an audience as possible while preserving works of art that may have otherwise been forgotten.”
Balzer says, “I mean, these are just extraordinary feats of animation that took place more than 150 years ago.” “And if you’re just holding on to them, I think you should share them with other people.” (via the verge and wired)