In 1835, he was appointed Professor of experimental physics in the University of Ghent. Fascinated by the persistence of luminous impressions on the retina, he lost his eyesight in an experiment in which he gazed directly into the sun for 25 seconds.
In 1836, Plateau invented an early stroboscopic device, the "phenakistiscope". It consisted of two disks, one with small equidistant radial windows, through which the viewer could look, and another containing a sequence of images. When the two disks rotated at the correct speed, the synchronization of the windows and the images created an animated effect. The projection of stroboscopic photographs, creating the illusion of motion, eventually led to the development of cinema.
Plateau also studied the phenomena of capillarity and surface tension (Statique experimentale et théorique des liquides soumis aux seules forces moleculaires, 1873).
He died in Ghent.