The famous precursor to moving images "The Horse in Motion" was created in 1878 by Eadweard Muybridge, eight years after Henry Heyl demonstrated his phasmatrope. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the late 1800s, a Philadelphia inventor gave one of the first demonstrations of a projected moving picture — a precursor to cinema and movies and the video that is now ubiquitous in our world. And that was just part of his legacy.

Henry Renno Heyl was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1842. He moved to Philly about 20 years later.

On Feb. 5, 1870, he staged a demo at the Academy of Music in front of about 1,500 people.

He had invented a device he called the “phasmatrope.”

The phasmatrope was a geared disc loaded with sequential glass slides. When spun in front of a lantern projector, it could cast a moving image onto a screen.

A crank controlled the device, allowing the operator to sync the pace of the images to live sound.

Henry Heyl’s phasmatrope was one of the earliest devices to project moving images. (Philadelphia Inquirer/

One of the demonstration discs showed Heyl dancing with a relative. He paired the images with orchestral music to complete the effect.

Local papers were wowed. A headline in the Evening Public Ledger blared “MOVIES INVENTED BY PHILADELPHIAN,” and called Heyl the “originator of motion pictures.”

Heyl publicly displayed his phasmatrope one more time — that March, at the Franklin Institute. Other than that, as far as we know, he didn’t make any other contributions to early film.

And according to the Public Ledger, he didn’t patent his invention.

Henry Heyl showed off his phasmatrope with a “movie” of him dancing with a relative. (Philadelphia Inquirer/

Along with inventions like the zoetrope, the phenakistoscope, and the zoopraxiscope, phasmatrope was among several moving-picture devices that helped bridge the gap between flip-book and film.

By the end of the 19th century, New Jersey’s Thomas Edison and France’s Lumiere brothers began introducing equipment that could capture and play back moving images.

From there, popular cinema took off.

Heyl’s engineering acumen, meanwhile, went well beyond motion pictures.

Working from a machine shop where the Curtis building now stands, Heyl secured the U.S. patent for the first modern stapler.

Heyl’s obituary in the Evening Public Ledger identified him as the inventor of the “folding paper box.” He also devised a tool that helped mechanize book binding. Plus, he contributed to the development of paper milk containers and paper cups.

A book-binding machine patented by Henry Heyl for the Novelty Paper Box Company. (Rothschild Patent Model Collection, Hagley Museum & Library)

Despite the breadth and impact of Heyl’s inventions, there’s not much existing information about his life.

He married and had four children — one of whom became principal at West Philadelphia HIgh School. Thanks to his obituary, we do know the sad circumstances of his death.

In 1919, Heyl fell off a trolley car at Broad and Walnut Streets — possibly after a fainting spell. The impact killed him. He was 76 years old.

Originally posted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on Nov. 16, 2023 

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...