Ever thought about making your own optical illusion thaumatrope toy at home? It’s a fun and educational activity for children and adults alike.
In this complete guide to thaumatropes, you’ll find out everything you need to know about creating a working thaumatrope from scratch.
This article includes:
- What is a thaumatrope? + Quick explanation of the science
- 2 Simple methods for making a DIY thaumatrope
- 67 Thaumatrope ideas to get you inspired
Ready to get creative? Let’s get into it!
Image: La Classe de Moscaia
What is a thaumatrope?
A thaumatrope is a simple optical toy or device that was popular in the 19th century. It was created by British physician John Ayrton Paris.
These popular toys create an illusion of motion by combining two different static images into one. The word “thaumatrope” comes from the Greek words “thauma,” meaning “wonder,” and “tropos,” meaning “turning” or “revolution.”
The thaumatrope consists of a small disc or card with a different picture or design on each side. These separate images are usually related and complement each other in some way. For example, one side may have an image of a bird, while the other side has an image of an empty cage. The disc is attached to two strings via two holes, or alternatively to a stick.
How does a thaumatrope work?
To use a thaumatrope optical toy, you hold the strings or sticks between your fingers and then spin or twist it quickly.
As the disc rotates rapidly, the images on both sides blend together due to the persistence of vision, which is the phenomenon where an image continues to be perceived by the brain for a short moment after the visual stimulus is gone.
As your brain quickly processes this visual information, you get the illusion of one single picture.
Blending the two images creates the illusion of one picture that combines the elements from both sides of the disc.
In the case of the bird and cage example, when you spin the thaumatrope, you would see the bird appearing to be inside the cage, creating the impression that the bird is trapped.
The thaumatrope demonstrates the concept of persistence of vision and the brain’s ability to blend and perceive continuous motion.
Thaumatropes were one of the earliest forms of animation and were often used as entertainment or novelty items. They provided a simple and charming way to create the illusion of movement before the invention of more complex animation techniques.
How do you make a thaumatrope optical toy?
There are two super effective yet very simple ways to make a thaumatrope: the string method and the stick method.
We prefer to use the string method, because it can often give the cards a faster spin and therefore create a better illusion. However, the stick method works great too!
Check out our how-to video and step-by-step tutorial for making a string-based thaumatrope.
How to make thaumatrope optical toys with the string method
Here’s what you’ll need to create your optical illusion:
- White card
- Marker pens
- Compass (to make a circle – if you don’t have one you can draw around a small bowl, glass or round cookie cutter)
- Single hole punch (if you don’t have one, you can carefully make small holes with the point of the scissors or the end of a kebab skewer)
- Rubber bands, elastic bands or some lengths of string
- Glue stick
Follow these steps to make a thaumatrope with your own design:
- Draw two separate circles on a piece of card using a compass or by tracing around a bowl, glass or round cookie cutter.
- Carefully cut the circles out with the scissors.
- On one circle, draw one of the images, and on the other circle, draw the other image. You can do anything you want, but keep it simple until you’re feeling more confident with how to make a thaumatrope. Your images will appear on top of one another at the same time when you spin them.
4. Now glue the circles together so that an image is showing on each side and one image is upside down. For example, if one side is a goldfish bowl, make sure the fish on the other side is upside down.
***This is a really important step. Make sure you check the illusion works BEFORE you glue the cards together. You can check by holding them together and flipping them up and down to see if you’re happy with the image created.***
5. Use the single hole punch to make a hole in the middle left and middle right of the circles. You can use a ruler to help you check the holes are level with the center of the circle and not too high or low.
6. Loop a rubber band through one of the holes and knot it to keep it in place. Do the same with the other hole using a second rubber band.
Alternatively, you can tie a short length of string to each end.
7. Now twist the rubber bands between your fingers and thumbs and watch your cartoon image appear as the two drawings combine into one! Show it to friends and family and see if you can trick their brains too.
Image: Job Carr Cabin
How to make a thaumatrope optical illusion with the stick method
Don’t have any string or elastic bands to hand? No problem! You can simply replace them with a stick or straw. A good option is a paper or plastic drinking straw.
Creating a thaumatrope with a straw is a fun and easy craft project. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to make one:
- A drinking straw
- Cardstock or thick paper
- Markers or colored pencils
- Tape or glue
- Start by cutting out two small circles or squares from the cardstock or thick paper. These will serve as the discs for your thaumatrope. Make sure they are small enough to fit within the length of the straw.
- On one disc, draw or color a simple image or design. For example, you can draw a smiling face, a flower, a star, or any other small and recognizable shape. Be creative and use colors that will stand out.
- On the other disc, draw or color a complementary image that is related to the first one. For instance, if you drew a face on the first disc, you could draw a hat on the second disc.
- Once you have finished drawing and coloring your images, make sure they are positioned correctly to create the desired effect. Remember that the two images need to work together when they blend.
- Take the straw and cut it into two equal pieces. Each piece should be about the length of the discs plus a little extra space.
- Tape or glue one disc to one end of each straw piece. Make sure they are securely attached and centered on the straw.
- Now, hold the two straw pieces together with the discs facing outward. Align the images so that they match up perfectly when the straw pieces are brought together.
- Finally, secure the two straw pieces together using tape or glue. Make sure they are tightly fastened, allowing the discs to rotate freely.
Your thaumatrope with a straw is now complete! To use it, hold the straw between your fingers and spin it quickly by rolling the ends back and forth. The spinning motion will create the illusion of the two images merging together, forming a single image or animation.
Remember to experiment with different designs and colors to make your thaumatrope more engaging and enjoyable. Have fun exploring the world of optical illusions!
Image: Mademoizel Jeanne
Thaumatrope design ideas
In need of some inspiration? Check out this ultimate list of thaumatrope ideas for what to put on the different sides of your pictures.
- Sun and Moon: On one disc, draw a bright sun, and on the other, draw a crescent moon. When spun, it will create a transition from day to night or vice versa.
- Bird and Cage: Draw a bird on one disc and a cage on the other. When spun, it will give the impression of the bird being inside the cage.
- Fish and Water: Draw a fish on one disc and ripples or waves on the other. When spun, it will make it appear as if the fish is swimming in water.
- Flower and Bee: On one disc, draw a blooming flower, and on the other, a buzzing bee. When spun, it will give the illusion of the bee flying around the flower.
- Cat and Mouse: Draw a cat on one disc and a mouse on the other. When spun, it will create a playful chase between the cat and the mouse.
- Ballerina and Stage: Draw a ballerina on one disc and a stage or spotlight on the other. When spun, it will make it seem as if the ballerina is dancing on the stage.
- Car and Road: On one disc, draw a car, and on the other, draw a winding road. When spun, it will create the illusion of the car moving along the road.
- Heart and Arrow: Draw a heart on one disc and an arrow on the other. When spun, it will create a representation of an arrow piercing through the heart.
- Butterfly and Flower: On one disc, draw a butterfly, and on the other, draw a flower. When spun, it will give the impression of the butterfly fluttering around the flower.
- Smiley Face and Sad Face: Draw a smiling face on one disc and a sad or crying face on the other. When spun, it will create a transition from happy to sad emotions.
Feel free to combine elements or create your own unique designs. Thaumatropes offer endless possibilities for creativity and animation.
Image: Hugo Escargot
More thaumatrope design ideas
In this list, we’ve separated the picture for each side with a comma. For example, for ‘fish, goldfish bowl’ you would draw a fish on one side and a goldfish bowl on the other.
- Fish, goldfish bowl (or fish tank)
- Shark, shark cage
- Bird, branch
- Ship, ocean
- Flag, mast
- Speech bubble, message
- Face, moustache (or glasses, or beard, or hat)
- Snowman, snow
- Penguin, snow globe
- Firefly, jar
- Plate, sandwich
- Eggs, nest
- Frying pan, sausages
- Umbrella, person holding it
- Lightning, cloudy sky
- Flowers, vase
- Treasure, treasure chest
- Plane, sky
- Spider, web
- Dog, kennel
- Caterpillar, leaf
- Christmas tree, decorations
- Balloon or kite, child holding it
- Cat, whiskers
- Dog, bone in its mouth
- Robber, policeman chasing them
- Rainbow, cloud
- Frog, lilypad
- Rocking horse, rider
- Submarine, under the sea
- Whale, water coming out of its spout
- Jug, water being poured out
- Butterfly or bird, flapping its wings (draw its wings in a different position)
- Duck, pond
- Gravestone, inscription
- Birthday card, design on the front
- Carousel ride, carousel horses
- Witch, broomstick
- Magic wand, sparks coming out
- Candle, flame
- Wave, surfer
- Small animal, big animal about to eat it (e.g. shark and fish, lion and mouse)
- King or queen, crown
- Heart, broken heart
- Open eye, closed eye
- Open mouth, closed mouth
- Tree, apples growing on it
- Plant, flowers growing on it
- Finger, ring
- Open door, ghost
- Window, person waving
- Tightrope, tightrope walker (or balance beam, gymnast)
- Bowl, fruit
- Moon, craters (or the Earth, the continents)
- Flag, skull and crossbones
- Brush, palette
- Fish, bubbles
We hope this complete guide to thaumatropes helped you (or your kids) create your own optical illusion art!
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