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 freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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

  1. DH405 says:

    Try using this tinyurl. MUCH easier to type.

  2. habbi says:

    woah! great!

    I just installed the app and suscribed to the rss feed. you guys try it, is really not that hard to see in 3D; the images just pop out and your brain does the rest by adjusting the focus.

  3. Ethan says:

    It’s worth noting that all these fabulous stereograms are designed for parallel viewing, while the guide given here teaches cross-viewing.
    For best (ie., non-inverted) results, I’d advise people to learn to parallel view, which I personally find is a lot easier than cross-viewing.

  4. Anonymous Coward says:

    Along with travel and uplifting moral tales came the inevitable pr0n … racy pictures of bordello beauties were common subjects, as were “classical” scenes of nymphs, and the softcore harem scenes.

  5. Personally I find cross eyed easier than wall eyed. Of course I had to teach myself wall eye for those random dot stereograms (and simple image stereograms) that were all the rage 10 years ago.

    However why not produce pictures for both by swapping the order of the two images. Infact this could be done no brainer in software. Or have 3 images, by repeating one of them, so you could simply chose to go wall eyed or cross eyed by covering either the very left or very right image… whichever is easier depending on your DNA :-)

    I thought that the problem with wall eyed is that you cannot make your eyes point outward, only parallel, so the distance between images *MUST* be the same as the width of your eyes. Which is not very big compared to most images today.

  6. A Johnstone says:

    I think there is huge potential for free-view video, either collected footage or computer generated.

    During this last year I met a guy working with VR equipment. He had created a program that generated parallel views of a 3D environment. I tried the cross focus on the two 17 inch computer monitors and it worked! Not only did the two massive images combine, but it wasn’t a problem to remain focused, even when I was looking around the environment using a 3D mouse.

    I really like this DIY approach to 3D, hopefully we’ll see some projects using this in the future.

  7. RoverDaddy says:

    Great! Now I can place ‘ViewMaster’ on the list of gadgets replaced by my iPhone! ;)

  8. You may be surprised to know that there are many people involved in producing modern day stereoviews. Some are as good or better than the best photographers of yesteryear. Look up the National Stereoscopic Association .

  9. Vernon Davis says:

    To use the cross-eye approach, hold the iPhone an arm’s length away and cross your eyes until you see 3 images; the one in the center will be the 3D image and will be the brightest.

  10. Most of my baby pictures were taken with a Kodak stereo camera. Mr. Bubble never looked so good…

    fyi, I flicked to your wonderful article at the end of this post:


  11. steve says:

    Nice, but it would be better if the images were switched for cross eye viewing. Cross eye viewing is superior in many ways… First, it is a better technique to know; you can view much larger images (with parallel viewing, images can NOT be much bigger than the distance between your pupils). It is also much easier to learn the cross eye technique by looking at your finger in front of the screen and moving it towards and away from the screen until you see three images instead of 2 or 4. You get a real object to focus on until it becomes natural (only takes minutes before you no longer need your finger). With parallel view you have to try to focus beyond the image (not a natural thing for eyes to do).

    Using my I phone, I have taken great looking stereo images and with the cross eye method can display them on my tv. This would be impossible with parallel view. To do this you must have an object/person that/who will be very still. Just hold the phone slightly to the right of your head, take a picture, then take another picture from the left side of your head. Only move the phone/camera horizontally. Any vertical movement will make it harder to view. Find those 2 pictures on your phone. If they are listed on the same row on your phone, just cross your eyes and you can see it in 3d right there without opening the images. To make the images printable or viewable elsewhere just use MS Paint or photoshop to copy and paste the second image to the right of the first image. The picture you took from the right side always goes on the left, otherwise you have to parallel view it and it has to be small.

  12. Robert says:

    Just was wondering what kind of money I could get out of a Monarch 1904 PAT. stereograph with about 50 viewing cards? I came across one from my wife’s aunt.