The 3-D Graphics Revolution of 1859—and How to See in Stereo on Your iPhone

Gadget lovers and other technology enthusiasts suffer from a curious myopia about the past. The general assumption—fostered by the admittedly blinding pace of progress in computing and software—is that everything really cool must have been invented in the last decade or two. Marvels like wearable virtual-reality displays with force feedback gloves are often described as if they were without precedent.

But past generations were far cleverer than we usually imagine. It may surprise you to learn, for example, that the first three-dimensional (stereo) images were created by British scientist Charles Wheatstone in 1845, just a few years after the emergence of photography itself, and that 3-D photo viewers—called stereoscopes—were common appliances in middle-class living rooms for more than 70 years, from the time of the American Civil War to the Great Depression.

The Holmes-Bates StereoscopeIf you came across a stereoscope or a stack of the dual-image “stereograph” cards used in them today, perhaps in an antique store or your grandparents’ attic, you’d probably dismiss them as quaint curiosities or toys. That would be an understandable reaction, given that we can now enjoy computer-animated 3-D movies like The Polar Express and Beowulf at Imax scale. But you’d be missing the fact that for at least three generations, in an era before radio, television, and easy geographic mobility, the stereoscope was many citizens’ most important window on the world outside their hometowns; it was their newsreel and their 3-D National Geographic, functioning as the main medium for what we now call photojournalism.

About 15 years ago, I inherited a stereoscope and a small number of stereograph cards from my grandfather. I treated the device mainly as a knick-knack until a couple of months ago, when I came across a book-fair vendor who was selling a large trove of quality stereo views. I picked through them, bought a dozen, took them home, put them in my stereoscope—and was completely bowled over by the images’ clarity and depth.

Brooklyn Bridge Stereograph CardThe cards I’d purchased were mostly made by the Keystone View Company, the largest and most prosperous of the 19th-century stereograph publishers, and their subject matter, composition, and printing exhibited a refinement that had been missing from the handful of cheaper cards I already owned. It was as if the depth in the cards I’d viewed before was a stage illusion; the people and objects in these more cheaply made images could just as well have been a series of scrims or paper cutouts. But the Keystone images had a continuous, lifelike depth similar to the perspective we enjoy in everyday life.

The revelation sent me off in search of historical information and, inevitably, more stereograph cards. I learned, to my surprise, that the household stereoscope—a simple contraption with a handle, two lenses, a hood to block light, and a sliding card holder— was invented in 1859 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the great Bostonian poet and physician. Holmes was enchanted by stereo photography and believed that a simple, affordable, handheld version of the heavy, awkward stereo viewers in use up until that time would give ordinary people access to a universe of marvels.

At the Boston Public Library, I tracked down a copy of a 1949 address given by George E. Hamilton, then president of the Keystone View Company, to the Newcomen Society of England in North America, a club devoted to the history of engineering and technology. Hamilton’s address included quotations from two articles Holmes had written about the stereoscope and stereo views for The Atlantic Monthly in 1859 and 1861. I want to excerpt those quotes here at length, because they convey the rapture Holmes felt toward these “painting[s] not made with hands”:

“The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced. The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture. The scraggy branches of a tree in the foreground run out at us as if they would scratch our eyes out. The elbow of a figure stands forth so as to make us almost uncomfortable.

…Oh, infinite volumes of poems that I treasure in this small library of glass and pasteboard! I creep over the vast features of Rameses, on the face of his rockhewn Nubian temple… and then I dive into some mass of foliage with my microscope, and trace the veinings of a leaf so delicately wrought in the painting not made with hands, that I can almost see its down and the green aphis that sucks its juices.

…If a strange planet should happen to come within hail, and one of its philosophers were to ask us, as it passed, to hand him the most remarkable product of human skill, we should offer him, without a moment’s hesitation, a stereoscope containing an instantaneous double-view of some great thoroughfare.”

It’s worth noting that while Hamilton had an obvious financial interest in promoting the stereoscope, Holmes never did. He gave his design to a Boston merchant named Joseph L. Bates, who manufactured and sold the device from his “fancy goods” shop at 132 Washington Street. (The “Monarch” stereoscope I inherited, made by Keystone, bears a 1904 patent, but its design had not changed in any important way since Holmes’ time.)

By 1890, stereoscopes and stereo views had become a huge industry in the U.S. and Europe, with four companies in the U.S. alone dispatching photographers to every corner of the Earth and competing to sell stereograph cards to the public. Every summer, the companies hired hundreds of college students to fan out across the countryside, hawking the latest series of travel, documentary, educational, comic, burlesque, or “sentimental” views. Weddings and railroad scenes were popular, as were … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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