Your crowded train leaves the station and rumbles through the darkness, wheels screeching against a curve. It’s just another morning commute. But then light and color rush in from outside from one of the oldest animation technologies in the world. It’s a zoetrope. And we need more of them.
The subway zoetrope I’m most familiar with sits along the Manhattan-bound track of the B and Q trains as they approach the Manhattan Bridge from DeKalb Avenue station in Brooklyn. Called the Masstransiscope, the installation was built in 1980 by artist and filmmaker Bill Brand with help from New York Arts project Creative Time in the shell of the closed Myrtle Avenue station. Some 300 feet long, the installation consists of 228 hand-painted panels nearly totally closed off from view to passersby. Only small slits grant riders split-second glimpses of the painted and illuminated panels, but as the train glides past, those glimpses run together and the pictures come alive.
Don’t believe me? Have a look at this video from Untapped New York. Taken from between cars on what appears to be an uptown Q train (don’t try that at home, folks!), the clip shows just how impressive the zoetrope effect is and how it can help light up even the most dreary commute into town.
But before any zoetropes entertained commuters, they were Georgian Era amusements. The first such device, then called a Doedalum, Invented by English mathematician William George Horner in 1837. Unlike the Masstransiscope, these toys spun on their own while viewers stayed put, looking through only one slit at images painted on the inside of a wheel. After a few decades of refinements, American inventor William F. Lincoln patented a similar device under the zoetrope name in the United States and it stuck.
The mechanics of the subway version are a little different. Instead of the pictures moving, the viewer does. The motion of the train determines the speed of the animation, kind of like how the speed that pages are released determines how fast your little stick figure dances in the little flip book you doodled at the bottom of your SAT prep book.
Of course, when the device was first invented back in the 1830s, the subway as we know it today would only be a dream in some of the most creative urban planners. Honestly, though, I think that this application is far and away the best use for the optical trick. There are plenty of disused stations and platforms out there ready to be equipped. Here’s a list of some of them in New York, but there are also plenty in London, Berlin, Paris, and other cities around the world. If the space is there, why not make use of it?
Of course, I should be clear that the Masstransiscope isn’t the only transit-facing zoetrope out there. The first one I ever saw was between the Central Square and Harvard stations on the Red Line in Cambridge, MA. Unlike the installation in Brooklyn, though, this little zoetrope was usually an ad of some sort. Other cities like San Francisco, Washington, DC, and Beijing have had similar displays as well. Back in 2011, Bew York’s MTA suggested that they might follow suit, but the project doesn’t seem to have gone anywhere.
It makes sense that a novelty like this could be a money-maker for cash-starved transit agencies trying to provide better service, and I understand the impulse, but it’s hard to be as impressed with the commercialization of something like this when someone’s already been using one to share a moment of levity like the installation in New York. So get out there, transit agencies. Build some more zoetropes (for fun, not advertising) and give commuters a chance to smile on their way.