Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau: Who was the Belgian physicist known as the ‘father of film’?

Child prodigy would go on to pave the way for modern cinema

Andy Gregory
Monday 14 October 2019 15:00
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Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau: Who was the Belgian physicist known as the ‘father of film’?

Google is celebrating the 218th birthday of Belgian physicist Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau, who has previously been described as the “father of film”.

But who was Plateau, and how did he gain this illustrious title?

The son of an artist who specialised in painting flowers, Plateau was born in Brussels in 1801.

Described by his son-in-law and biographer Gustaaf Van der Mensbrugghe as a young “prodigy”, he developed a keen interest in physics at an early age and began to invent various instruments while still at school.

Despite initially studying law, Plateau continued his experiments at home – an exploit that often resulted in damage to his furniture and, on one occasion, near-poisoning by a toxic gas, according to Van der Mensbrugghe.

Eventually switching his academic focus to science, Plateau’s doctoral thesis would provide the basis for a landmark moment in both science and the arts.

His 1829 dissertation focused on how images form on the retina, with Plateau detailing their exact colour, duration and intensity.

Three years later, he used this research to create the first ever moving image, creating what is known as a phenakistiscope.

The phenakistiscope was an instrument composed of two rotating discs moving in opposition directions, one fitted with small windows and the other with a set of images of a dancer.

“When both discs turned at exactly the right speed, the images seemed to merge, creating the illusion of a dancer in motion,” Google wrote.

Phenakistiscopes were sold widely in Europe and Eadweard Muybridge would later create a popular variation of the device that produced what is likely the first example of stop-motion, using images of horses.

While Plateau’s invention in effect paved the way for modern cinema, his fascination with light and vision may have cost him his sight.

Joseph Plateau

The physicist is said to have performed an experiment in which he gazed at the sun for 25 seconds in order to better understand the effects of light on the retina.

While he is said to have blamed this experiment for his declining sight, others believe he may have actually suffered from chronic uveitis.

But this loss of vision did not stop his scientific work, and he would go on to make several important discoveries, including in the area of surface tension – the tendency of liquids to shrink into the smallest possible surface area.

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