Sir Charles Wheatstone, 1838
popularized by Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1881

History | How it works | What became of it | Sources
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Stereoscopes, also known as stereopticons or stereo viewers, were one of America's most popular forms of entertainment in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The first patented stereoscope was invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838.  Wheatstone had experimented with simple stereoscopic drawings in 1832, several years before photography was invented.  Later, the two principles were combined to form the stereoscope.

However, Wheatstone's stereoscope was not as popular as a later version, made by Oliver Wendell Holmes.  One such stereoscope is displayed above.  Called the Holmes Stereo Viewer, it was the most common type of stereoscope from 1881 until 1939.  

How it works:

A stereoscope is composed of two pictures mounted next to each other, and a set of lenses to view the pictures through.  Each picture is taken from a slightly different viewpoint that corresponds closely to the spacing of the eyes.  The left picture represents what the left eye would see, and likewise for the right picture.  When observing the pictures through a special viewer, the pair of two-dimensional pictures merge together into a single three-dimensional photograph.

We can see a 3D picture through a stereoscope for the same reason a building appears three-dimensional.  The right and left eyes see a slightly different version of the same scene, and taken together, we get an illusion of depth.  This phenomenon had been known for quite some time, ever since the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid discovered the principles of binocular vision.

Early stereo photographs were taken with a camera mounted on a tripod with a sliding bar. Once the first picture was taken and a new photographic plate was inserted, the camera was moved about 7 cm along the bar (approximately adult eye spacing).  Then, the second picture was taken. 


What became of it:

Stereoscopes continued to be widespread in America until the 1930s.  Then stereoscope production declined, likely due to the new interest in motion pictures.  However, the stereoscope continues to offer viewers something that no ordinary photograph or movie can offer, namely a sense of depth and image realism.  A descendant of the stereoscope, the Viewmaster, is currently a popular children's toy.


Interview with Mr. Phil Condax, August 7, 2000 5:30 pm

Background information:

To see a modern stereoscope:


Other stereoscopes in our collection:
(click to view larger pictures)

 Conway Stereo Viewer 1920s-30s Stereo Viewer