A few thaumatrope designs made using birch bark

Things that spin

Your closet of toys is growing quickly, filled with Twiggie Parachutists, buzzsaws, a bead necklace, and soon your very own thaumatrope. This is part 2 in a 3 part series that will teach you how to make 3 different fun and simple toys that spin! You’ll also learn about beavers, spring ephemerals, and vernal pools along the way! You can always skip the background info below and go right to the video tutorial. And you can find more How To videos on our YouTube channel.

~ Teage (AKA Professor Eweagey)

Activity #2 of 3: Making Thaumatropes

Our restless creativity has given us countless technologies that push how we look at the world. Niepce’s photograph of his garden in the mid-1820s, the simple animations of zoetropes (1833), the 3-D renderings of distant monuments in stereoscopes (1830s), detailed anatomical holograms (1948). All of these gave us different lenses through which we could see the world, revealing that our own lens was a subjective vantage through which we interpret an external reality.

Often these technologies were brazen, outright lies, optical illusions that pointed out that our brains had faulty wiring. One of these was the aptly named thaumatrope (from the Greek thavma for wonder and tropos: spin). Invented in 1827 by John Ayrton Paris (or maybe not, p207), the device relied on the retina holding an image for longer than it was actually exposed to the observer. As the first image is removed and a new one immediately replaces it, the brain holds both in a single moment, fusing the two images into a single image. The trick could put birds in a cage or a pearl in an oyster. We might be jaded from our 21st century point of view, but to see and hold the magic and wonder of a thaumatrope in your own hands must have been nothing short of, well, magic to a 19th century observer.

A how to video for thaumatropes (with a brief diversion into the world of spring ephemerals)

I always tend to make things more complicated than they need to be. Thaumatropes can really be quite simple. I wanted to make mine a bit more “Cedar proof” so I glued the birch bark to a tree cookie and then made handles for the disk. But you can just glue the birch bark to itself with a single handle between the two sheets and be just as well off.

 

Materials

  • Birch bark
  • Cordage (or two small sticks, ~1/4 in diameter)
  • Thinly sliced tree cookie (2″+ in diameter and about <1/2″ thick)
  • Small sticks

Tools

  • Scissors
  • Saw
  • Knife
  • Glue
  • Drill
  • Pen, marker, paint brush, etc

Steps

  1. Cut out a tree cookie, small is fine (I cut one ~2″ in diameter)
  2. You can spin the thaumatrope using rope or sticks
    1. For rope:
      • drill 2 holes through the disk, one at each opposite end
      • tie a short loop through each hole
    2. For sticks:
      • Drill 2 small holes on opposites sides of the perimeter of the disk
      • Wedge the two sticks into the holds
  3. Trace the cookie onto 2 sections of birch bark and cut out these circles
  4. Draw your 2 objects onto the birch bark (typically thaumatropes put something inside of something else, like a fire inside a fire bit or a bird inside a nest)
  5. Glue the birch bark onto the cookie (be sure to glue them so one is upside down).

If you’re like me, then you want visuals to go with my explanation. Check out my quick “how to” video on making a thaumatrope. You can find this and other videos on the Crow’s Path channel.

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