There are signs of animation from 2000 BC in the tomb of Khnumhotep in Egypt. A drawing there features a very long series of images which apparently depict the sequence of events in a wrestling match. Leonardo da Vinci was known to make drawings in sequence of objects in motion. Then there were the various mechanical devices that showed images in sequence that simulated motion. These devices, like the thaumatrope, the phenakistoscope and the zoetrope. While all of these showed signs of what would become animation, none really can be considered animation. Yet.
In 1900, J. Stuart Blackton- then a cartoonist for the New York Evening World- was photographed in Thomas Edison’s New Jersey “Black Maria” studio performing a vaudeville routine known as the “lightning sketch,” supplemented by stop-camera tricks that seemed to bring the drawn objects to life. This film was titled The Enchanted Drawing, and was the first film to show animated tricks, but it would not meet our definition of an animated film.
Edison followed that film two years later with Fun In A Bakery Shop, which featured with what they termed described as “lightning sculpting.” This silent film is the first recorded use of stop-motion clay animation.
J. Stuart Blackton would return in 1906 in what was the first film that was more animated than live-action. Humorous Phases Of Funny Faces is generally considered to be the first animated cartoon (i.e. film containing drawn animation), it contains all the elements of a fully animated short, but it has no real narrative content. Even the opening title is animated.
The next real milestone in animation was created across the Atlantic in France by Émil Cohl. His Fantasmagorie (A Fantasy) from 1908 is the first fully animated film with no live-action at all. Created from over 700 drawings, Cohl placed each drawing on an illuminated glass plate and then traced the next drawing on top of it. By showing the negative instead of a positive of the film, Cohl made his line drawings appear to be chalk drawings- white on black instead of the black on white of this actual work.
One film many think was a first of some sort is Windsor McCays’ Gertie the Dinosaur. Unfortunately, Gertie was not really a first for anything, not even McCay’s first animated film. It was arguably the first major animated cartoon to catch the public imagination, but that is about it.