Yes it was news to us too: apparently the first 'moving image' device is called a phenakistoscope.
The principles behind it were initially established by the Greek mathematician Euclid and then by Isaac Newton, before Joseph Plateau, a Belgian, invented the device in 1841. It uses a series of images, moved in quick succession to create the illusion of movement. And thus, were the forerunners to GIFs. If Buzzfeed had existed in the 19th Century they'd have been all over them.
The images below use images from discs used in phenakistoscopes housed in the Richard Balzer Collection, who have turned them into GIFs to marvel at.
Check out their Tumblr for more.
(Images: Richard Balzer Collection)
[via Laughing Squid]