Today, we meet the 19th-century grandparent of
virtual reality. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Our family stereoscope was
the great delight of my childhood. A stereoscope
was a viewing device you held up before your face.
You looked through two lenses, one for each eye, at
two almost identical pictures, mounted side by
Your eyes merged two images into one. As they did,
the picture jumped out in three dimensions. It was
a stunning effect.
Movie houses tried to use the same trick after
WW-II. Two pictures, in two colors, were slightly
offset. They were blurry to the naked eye. But
glasses with red and green lenses obstructed one
image in each eye. The result was a crude version
of what we used to see in stereoscopes. But now it
The underlying idea is at least as old as
Aristotle. He knew that our two eyes report
different views. By putting those views together,
we perceive depth. The electrical pioneer Charles
Wheatstone first showed how we could use that fact.
In 1838 Wheatstone jolted the Royal Society by
creating an illusion of three-dimensionality. He
showed people two slightly offset line drawings
through separate lenses.
But he could do no more. Then, a year later,
François Arago announced Daguerre's
invention of photography to the French Academy.
Wheatstone, a foreign member of the French Academy,
reacted to Arago's announcement. He asked for
photographic images in stereo.
The French produced complex devices. When another
Englishman named Brewster created a much simpler
stereoscope in 1849, England wasn't interested.
Brewster had to cross the Channel to find French
lens-makers who would market his invention.
After that the stereoscope came out of France and
emerged in the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibit. England
finally caught on to the wonder of it all. Soon
There were problems. Stereoscopic pictures made
fine pornography. Erotica became a major industry.
The public was officially outraged. In 1859
Baudelaire, whose poetry was not exactly G-rated,
led the assault on shady pictures. That was the
same Baudelaire who, seven years later, wrote in
Les Fleurs du Mal: "What do I care
that you are good? Be beautiful! And be sad."
But the pictures that delighted me as a child were
pyramids in Egypt, cheeses in Holland, Rough Riders
in Cuba. No longer flat images, but places that
wrapped around me and fed my dreams.
The new visual media, movies and TV, drove
stereoscopes out. Now, I suppose, we wait for their
21st century offspring, for virtual reality, to
bring 3-D back -- stronger than ever.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Buerger, J.E., French Daguerreotypes.
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989 (see
especially, but not exclusively, Chapter 8.)
The following sources provide additional examples
and details about the supporting cast:
Gernsheim, H., and Gernsheim, A., Daguerre,
L.M.J., Cleveland: the World Publishing
The Daguerreotype: A Sesquicentennial
Celebration (John Wood, ed.). Iowa City:
University of Iowa Press, 1989.
I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Library,
for isolating fine materials on Daguerreotypes and
drawing my attention to them. She also provided the
stereoscope (or stereopticon) image below.
Another, perhaps more familiar, word for a
stereoscope is stereopticon. Many of the
episodes on this website are illustrated by
stereopticon pictures. They may be found by
searching on the word stereopticon. Below is a
stereopticon card, not taken from a photo, but
rather a drawing whose purpose was to display, in
three dimensions, an inscribed polygon. Notice how
the left and right sides of the picture offer
slightly different perspectives -- just as either
eye would see the image.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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