An Eye on the 19th Century

Original content by: Carol Ambrosch Terry Samokar

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About This Artifact

Have you ever looked through a View-Master?  If you have, you've enjoyed the same entertainment that many middle-class people did in the 1800s.  At that time, the stereoscope was the only means to view the world in 3-D.  With a handful of double image cards called stereographs, and the magic of a stereoscope, one could see as realistic a rendition as possible of people, outdoor scenes, or staged settings.  A person in a New England town could travel to far-away places, see a steaming locomotive, or view a whale hunt — all through a hand-held mechanism that brought flat photographs to life.  It allowed ordinary people the opportunity to see a world they would probably never view, all from the comfort of their armchair.

The stereoscope is a device used for viewing pairs of photographs as a three-dimensional image based on the principals first discovered by the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid.  Two identical images, which are slightly offset from each other, are able to be viewed as one.  The human eye naturally combines two images that are seen from slightly different angles of the left and right eye.  The eyes then transmit these two images to the brain, where they merge into one, three-dimensional image.  Stereoscopes mimicked this same process.  Two photographs were taken with a camera, mounted on a special tripod that included a sliding bar.  After the first photograph was recorded, the camera would then slide along the bar approximately the same spacing as between human eyes (about 7cm).

The first patented stereo viewer was Sir Charles Wheatstone's reflecting stereoscope in 1838.  According to the article History of the Stereopticon, "The device was a bulky and complicated contraption that utilized a system of mirrors to view a series of pairs of crude drawings."  Several years later, David Brewster developed an easier-to-use version in Scotland.  In 1862, Oliver Wendell Holmes went even further, creating an even simpler apparatus, the Holmes Stereopticon.  Much more streamlined, it consisted of two prismatic lenses and a wooden holder for the stereograph card.  This more affordable device became the standard in the market for decades.  Stereoscopic entertainment continued to be popular until the 1930s, when interests shifted to the growing movie industry.

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Why do you think the use of stereoscopes was more popular in America than in Europe?
  2. What impact do you think the Industrial Revolution had on middle-class ability to use the stereoscope?
  3. How would your vision be affected if you only had 1 eye? How about multiple eyes?