Stereoscopes and Stereographs Were the Original Virtual Reality

The shocking power of immersing oneself in another world was all the buzz once before—about 150 years ago.  Virtual reality has been with us for a long time.

The earliest stereoscope has been attributed to Sir Charles Wheatstone as well as to David Brewster. Both worked in the early 1800s. Stereoscopes were also called stereo viewers. They quickly became the most popular forms of entertainment for middle- and upper-class families during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In June 1838, the British scientist Charles Wheatstone published a paper describing a curious illusion he’d discovered. If you drew two pictures of something—say, a cube, or a tree—from two slightly different perspectives, and then viewed each one through a different eye, your brain would assemble them into a three-dimensional view. This was, he noted, precisely how our vision works; each eye sees a slightly different perspective. Wheatstone created a table-size device to demonstrate the effect, with a viewer that sent a unique image to each eye: the world’s first stereoscope.

A decade later, the scientist David Brewster refined the design, crafting a hand-held device you could raise to your eyes. Insert a card with stereo images —a “view”—and presto! A scene came alive. Better yet, the photograph had recently been invented, which meant Brewster’s stereoscope could display not just crude hand drawings, but vivid images captured from real life.

In 1851 stereo daguerreotypes were exhibited for the first time to the general public at the London International Exhibition (Crystal Palace).

In 1859 physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes designed a hand-held viewer for stereoscopes which then became the favourite for home and classroom use from 1881 to 1939.

He vividly described viewing photographs in 3-D:

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 as if they would scratch our eyes out. The elbow of a figure stands forth so as to make us almost uncomfortable. Then there is such a frightful amount of detail, that we have the same sense of infinite complexity that Nature gives us. A painter shows us masses; the stereoscopic figure spares us nothing…

Stereographs were two nearly identical photographs that were printed onto a piece of cardstock or cardboard.  When looking through the viewer at the two images the viewer got the impression that he or she was seeing the subject in 3-D.

By 1860 both amateur photographers and publishing firms were making stereographs. The major stereo publishers sold their views by mail order, door-to-door salesmen, and in stores. Stereographs were sold individually and in boxed sets.

They were typically published with caption information printed under the image or on the back of the mount

People acquired stereographs of tourist sites they had visited, as well as exotic locales that they would only experience through the wonder of the stereoscope. Viewing stereographs was a common activity, much like watching television or going to the movies today.

Adults and children were able to travel to interesting places from the comfort of their homes and classrooms.

The more expensive models were usually made of solid wood, such as walnut, with solid brass fittings and velvet-edged brass hood.  Some even came with a pedestal display base.  It allowed the family and guests to enjoy lifelike 3D pictures.  The stereographs featured famous sites, cities, events and people.  In the typical home of the late 1800s, the stereoscope was an object as common back then as a TV set is today.

In the mid-20th century the View-Master stereoscope (patented 1939), with its rotating cardboard disks containing image pairs, was popular first for ‘virtual tourism’ and then as a toy.

 

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