Before The Internet, These Creepy 19th-Century 'GIFs' Mesmerized The Masses

12/16/2013 02:59 pm ET

GIFs are widely regarded as an Internet-age phenomenon. So, it might surprise you that more than 150 years before you saw your first "Mean Girls" GIF, people were also watching split-second, hypnotic and repetitive animations, also presumably to avoid doing their homework.

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Credit: The Richard Balzer Collection

Creepy? Awesome? Creepy-Awesome.

These pre-digital GIFs were optical tricks, and were viewed on rotating devices called phenakistoscope and zoetropes. Wired Magazine reported last week on the man that has made it his mission to bring these seriously psychedelic animations to the Internet generation.

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Credit: The Richard Balzer Collection

How many frogs can one guy eat?

Richard Balzer has spent decades collecting these fascinating, totally addictive toys of procrastinators past, and turning them into an online treasure-trove of vintage optic animation, dubbed The Richard Balzer Collection. Recently, he recruited Los Angeles animator Brian Duffy to transform some of his illustrated animations into modern-day Internet GIFs. The results are completely mesmerizing, and sometimes perhaps slightly disturbing:

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Credit: The Richard Balzer Collection

We don't even know what's going on in this one.

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Credit: The Richard Balzer Collection

Don't you hate it when people just show up at your place without calling?

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Credit: The Richard Balzer Collection

So. Many. Faces.

You can see more of these mind-boggling animations on Balzer's Tumblr page.

The way these optical devices work is pretty simple. Most of these examples were viewed through a phenakistoscope, which contained one disk of sequential images:

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The disk had equally spaced slots along the edge, and was attached to a 10-12 inch long stick. To view, you simply look in the mirror, spin the disk and watch the images rotate through the slots. This created the illusion of movement -- like a circular flip-book. (Read about zoetropes, another type of moving image device, here.)

Then, this adorably formal couple would flirt, over and over and over again:

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Charmed, I'm sure!

And these shockingly nimble jungle animals would repeat the same gymnastic feat:

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They nail it. Every. Single. Time.

These toys aren't the only early photography to have something in common with Internet memes. Eadweard Muybridge, who is credited as the first person to accurately capture a sequence of motion on camera, spent much of his time documenting the Internet's favorite topic: animals, as seen in split-second animated sequences. Check a couple of his image series below, with an Internet age face-lift.

Just a camel struttin' by:

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Is this the first GIF of a buffalo you've ever seen?

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So remember, next time you find yourself hypnotized by today's Internet GIFs, you're not wasting time, you're engaging in time-honored cultural tradition.

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Also on HuffPost:

Artist Mads Madsen Brings Colour To Famous Black And White Photos

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