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 recreations of the life of Jesus. During Word War I, stereo views captured on the battlefields of Europe gave people back home a glimpse of that war’s massive troop movements and its horrifying carnage. (One of the stereographs I found at the book fair is a World War I view appropriately entitled “Human Wreckage.”)

Popular interest in stereoscopes and stereo views tapered off gradually after the rise of motion pictures and radio, although the technology continued to be used for educational purposes in many classrooms into the 1950s. Stereo photography has been kept alive to this day—though more as a toy than as a serious documentary or artistic medium—by the View-Master, in which the traditional 3-by-7-inch stereograph card is replaced by a paper disk holding seven pairs of transparencies.

Vintage stereoscopes and stereo views are plentiful on eBay, and I confess that my book-fair adventure seems to be blooming into a binge of acquisitiveness. Waiting for me at home, as yet unpacked, is a series of medical stereographs reportedly so grisly that the seller wouldn’t show them on his eBay page. Meanwhile, I’ve scanned my initial collection of stereo cards and posted them on Flickr.

Now, dear reader, if you’ve read any of my previous columns, you know that I’m not likely to ramble on about history for 1,100 words without eventually bringing the discussion back to modern media technology. What relevance does the stereographic technology of the 19th and early 20th centuries have today, when we have so many other ways to obtain information? I want to leave you with two thoughts.

Genesee Falls, New York, Stereo ViewFirst, newer is not always better. It may sound unlikely to anyone who has not taken the time to view one of the old stere images in a vintage stereoscope, but the 3-D effect produced by the best stereograph cards is stunning, even vertiginous. In an age of mostly 2-D imagery viewed on newsprint or flat screens, we have forgotten the impact that the third dimension can add. If you thought the latest Xbox video game or high-definition plasma display was “immersive,” you should see the images captured by the masters of the genre, photographers like Benjamin Kilburn, Chalres Bierstadt, and Eadward Muybridge.

Second, you don’t actually need a stereoscope or even physical stereograph cards to appreciate these old images. By “parallel free-viewing” the images, you can usually see the stereo effect even on a regular computer monitor. Free-viewing takes a bit of practice, but it’s worth the effort. There’s a tutorial on it here; it’s all about staring at the two images, relaxing your eyes until you see the “third” image that forms between the left and right images, then focusing in on that image. All of the stereograph images that I’ve included in my Flickr set can be viewed in this way.

Once you’ve mastered free-viewing on a regular computer display, here’s some dessert. (Non-iPhone owners: You can stop reading here unless you’re really interested.) I’ve tested free-viewing on my iPhone, and it works really well. The little black phone with its high-resolution screen turns out to be a great medium for stereo images—much better than I would have thought, given that the iPhone’s display is about half the size of a traditional stereograph card.

The implications are exciting. The iPhone and the iPod Touch make it so easy to grab images from the Internet (and/or store them in the built-in photo album) that it’s now feasible to think of your smartphone as a portable stereo viewer, with access to a potentially unlimited supply of images.

My stereo view collection on Seadragon Mobile[Update, November 28, 2009: The method spelled out in this paragraph for viewing my PhotoZoom collection using Microsoft’s Seadragon Mobile app no longer appears to work. I advise going straight to my Flickr stereograph photoset on your iPhone and viewing individual images in landscape mode.] To start you off, I’ve uploaded the scans of my own small stereograph card collection to a Microsoft Live Labs photo sharing service called PhotoZoom. You can access the collection by downloading Microsoft’s new Seadragon Mobile app from the iTunes App Store. (I highly recommend Seadragon Mobile in any case—Live Labs calls it a “technology preview,” and it is definitely not fully baked, but it’s still a fantastic tool for exploring large collections of images.) To get to my stereographs, open Seadragon Mobile, then tap the + button, then tap RSS Feed, then type in the following URL:

You have to type it exactly—unfortunately you can’t paste it in. (Microsoft says it’s working on an easier way to connect to PhotoZoom collections, so these instructions could become outdated after the next update of Seadragon Mobile.) Now you should have access to two photo albums; select the one called Stereo Views. The other, HD Gallery, is just a collection of favorite photos I’ve taken over the last few years.

Now you should be able to zoom in on any of the stereo views. Tilt your iPhone to landscape (horizontal) orientation. Enlarge a single stereograph until a matched pair of images exactly fills the screen. Hold your iPhone about 8 inches from your nose, and try free-viewing the image.

After a bit of practice, the images will pop right out at you—as if your iPhone had suddenly become a window on a real location. Let me know how it works for you! If you don’t want to download Seadragon Mobile and go through the RSS rigmarole, you can always copy the stereograph images from my Flickr photoset to your computer one at a time, then transfer them to your iPhone’s photo album using iPhoto. I’ll add new stereographs (including, perhaps, the grisly medical ones) as time allows. Meanwhile, welcome to the new old world of 3-D photography.

Addendum, January 29, 2009: Today’s Very Short List: Web highlights a project by blogger Joshua Heineman to turn stereographs from the collection of the New York Public Library into animated GIF images that wiggle back and forth between the right and left views, creating the illusion of depth without any need for a stereoscope or free viewing. The images are quite startling in this format—check them out here.

Addendum, February 14, 2009: I’ve scanned the series of anatomical stereographs mentioned above and added them to my Flickr photoset. Caution: they’re not for the queasy or the faint of heart. In most of the views, human cadavers have been bisected or flayed, and their individual parts meticulously numbered with tiny typewritten numbers attached to pins. I don’t have the key to the labels, nor do I have any idea how these cards were produced—they appear to have been printed commercially but then pasted by hand onto their cardboard backings for viewing in a stereoscope, and they came to me inside a handmade wooden toolbox. If you’ve heard of similar stereographs or have any clues about where these might have originated, please send me a note at

Continue to Page 3 for a slide show of my scanned stereograph images.

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Stereo View Slide Show
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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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