Stereoscopy: the birth of 3D technology

Discover stereoscopy, pioneered by Professor Charles Wheatstone FRS in 1838 and developed by successive Fellows of the Royal Society.

Stereoscopic view of ruined housing in Polla, Italy after the great Neapolitan earthquake (1857-1858) by Alphonse Bernoud (1820-1889), attributed toThe Royal Society

What is stereoscopy?

Stereoscopy is a science of optical trickery. It deals with techniques and technology that make two-dimensional images appear three-dimensional to human eyes. By viewing two similar images with slightly different perspectives the illusion of a single image with depth is created.

Portrait of Charles Wheatstone FRS (c.1860s) by Charles MartinThe Royal Society

Charles Wheatstone's 3D Phenomenon

Modern 3-D technologies could not have been developed without an understanding of the physiology of human vision.  Stereoscopic or binocular vision was first formally described by Charles Wheatstone, inventor and Professor, in a paper read to the Royal Society on 21 June 1838.

In his paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Wheatstone outlined experiments to force each eye to look at separate objects or images and describes the resulting effects, to prove depth perception is a phenomenon of binocular vision. Leonardo Da Vinci had previously explored this, but not realised the scope of its applications.

Title page, 'Contributions to the Physiology of Vision', Charles Wheatstone (1802 - 1875), physicist, 1838-06-21, From the collection of: The Royal Society
,
'Contributions to the Physiology of Vision', Charles Wheatstone (1802 - 1875), physicist, 1838-06-21, From the collection of: The Royal Society
,
Plate 11 from 'Contributions to the Physiology of Vision - Part the First'., Charles Wheatstone (1802 - 1875), physicist, James Basire III (d.1869), engraver, 1838-06-21, From the collection of: The Royal Society
Show lessRead more

Wheatstone had trained his eyes to see properly prepared pairs of images or stereograms in three-dimensions without a viewing aid. He designed the reflecting stereoscope to help those with less practiced eyes experience flat images in relief - an entirely new optical experience.

Wheatstone reflecting stereoscope, The Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy, Charles Wheatstone, nineteenth century, From the collection of: The Royal Society
,
Plate 10 from 'Contributions to the Physiology of Vision - Part the First'., Charles Wheatstone (1802 - 1875), physicist, James Basire III (d.1869), engraver, 1838-06-21, From the collection of: The Royal Society
Show lessRead more

[Parlor scene with a group of women and a little girl] [Parlor scene with a group of women and a little girl] (1855–1865) by London Stereoscopic CompanyThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Stereo Photography

Wheatstone's first stereograms were pairs of basic line drawings to demonstrate his observations on optics to his scientific peers. The invention of photography in 1839, just a year later, would turn the stereoscope into a popular parlour entertainment.

Plate 10 from 'Contributions to the Physiology of Vision - Part the First'. (1838-06-21) by Charles Wheatstone (1802 - 1875), physicist and James Basire III (d.1869), engraverThe Royal Society

Figure 8 shows the design of Wheatsone's stereoscope - a pair of stereogram images would be placed with one image on each side of the apparatus, in the grooves (E) on side panels, adjusted so the images are at the point of the optical axes, about 6-8 inches away from the eyes.

At the centre are two mirrors (A), placed together with their backs at 90 degrees to one another.

The observer would place their eyes as close as possible to the mirrors, one either side of the join and perceive a single image in relief, or 3-D.

In 1849, David Brewster FRS improved and popularised a portable 3-D viewing device, the lenticular stereoscope. Using lenses and prisms instead of mirrors it was more compact than Wheatstone’s reflecting stereoscope and easier to use. It became the first commercial stereoscope and gained mass popularity after display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Queen Victoria's purchase of a lenticular viewer from Jean Antoine Claudet FRS in 1852. Claudet and Brewster went on to clash over further developments in stereoscopic technology

Formal portrait photograph of Sir David Brewster, physicist and inventor, James Valentine (1815-1879), photographer, 1863[?], From the collection of: The Royal Society
,
Brewster lenticular stereoscope, Museo nazionale della scienza e della tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), 1849, From the collection of: The Royal Society
Show lessRead more

Brewster also sparked controversy by claiming Wheatstone had not invented the stereoscope or thought to use it with photos. In response Wheatstone published a second paper in 1851, defending the originality of his idea and claiming that he had commissioned photographs as soon as Henry Fox-Talbot FRS had revealed his photographic process to the Royal Society in 1839.

Amethyst under polarized light from a paper by David Brewster, William Home Lizars (1788 - 1859), 1816, From the collection of: The Royal Society
Show lessRead more

Brewster's wider work on optics, included defining the laws of polarisation. Understanding polarisation would be pivotal to the technology behind creating 3-D movies. The first practical 3-D filming and viewing system was developed by Edwin Land FRS nearly a century after stereo photography. Polarised light-filtering glasses were worn by the audience to force the binocular effect.

Vermont Scenery. Lights and Shadows on the Winooski. Montpelier. Montpelier, Vt. Vermont Scenery. Lights and Shadows on the Winooski. Montpelier. Montpelier, Vt., Frank F. Currier, 1870s, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
,
Stereoscope, 1940, From the collection of: National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
,
Crystal Palace. General View of The Palace, Cascades and Lower Fountains., London Stereoscopic Company, 1851, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Show lessRead more

Photography vastly expanded the scope of subject material for stereoscopy. Landscape and city scenes were popular as they could create an immersive effect, transporting the viewer from their parlour. Many different stereoscopic viewers went on to be patented, taking advantage of the technology's popularity. Stereo photographs or stereographs were also widely used for scientific purposes.

Cut stereoscopic views of the 'Leviathan Telescope' of Lord Rosse at Birr Castle, Ireland (1861) by The Rt Hon. Mary Parsons née Field, Countess of Rosse (1813 – 1885), photographerThe Royal Society

Science in 3-D

Most of the examples of stereoscopic photography in the Royal Society collections show it quickly being adopted to document the scientific work of Fellows, from astronomy to ballistics.

Charles Piazzi-Smyth FRS (1819-1900), a pioneer in astronomy and photographic publishing led an expedition to the mountains of Tenerife in 1856 to test making astronomical observations at altitude. His popular account was the first book illustrated with stereoscopic photographs.

Young dragon trees (Dracaena draco) near Orotava, Tenerife, Charles Piazzi Smith (1819 - 1900), astronomer, 1858, From the collection of: The Royal Society
Show lessRead more

Along with his wife Jessica Duncan Piazzi Smyth (1812-1896), a geologist, they documented their experiments and equipment in the field, the geological formations in the volcanic mountains, and Tenerife flora and landmarks.

Jessica 'Jessie' Duncan Piazzi Smyth on Mount Guajara, left hand photograph of a stereoscopic pair, Charles Piazzi Smith (1819 - 1900), astronomer, 1857, From the collection of: The Royal Society
,
Jessica 'Jessie' Duncan Piazzi Smyth on Mount Guajara, right hand photograph of a stereoscopic pair, Charles Piazzi Smith (1819 - 1900), astronomer, 1857, From the collection of: The Royal Society
Show lessRead more

In the preface of his book, Piazzi Smyth explains his choice to publish stereographs. In addition to the three-dimensional effect, he saw it as an advantage to show two images to verify accuracy. For "correctness" a photo is better than a drawing - but two photos are better than one! This is also true when trying to capture a bullet in motion.

Stereoscopic photographs of artillery firing (1866) by Sergeant P McKinlayThe Royal Society

Stereo photograph of a gun firing (1866)

Royal Artillery Proofmaster, Seargeant P McKinlay integrated a binocular camera into his ballistics experiment. By means of connecting electro-magnetic  shutters to galvanic tubes he was able to capture the moment a gun fires.

The camera was rigged with spring loaded discs as improvised shutters. These were connected to the gun's galvanic tube trigger (seen being ejected at the rear). When fired the current holding open the shutters was disrupted capturing the photos at the exact time of discharge. 

The flash, smoke and projectile can all be seen at the muzzle of the gun. The image is barely blurred as it was captured with perfect timing, before the movement of the gun recoiling would have badly distorted the image.

"Among the many applications of photography to the different branches of science...my attention has been called to one of a novel description...to take the picture of a gun in the act of firing" P. McKinlay, Proofmaster, 1866

The motivation for this experiment is unclear, though a projectile makes for a dramatic stereoscopic subject. It may have been conceived to help with Sargeant McKinlay's duties as a Proofmaster. His role was to test the safety of gun barrels by using an over-pressure charge of powder to strain the barrel's resilience. In artillery proving is the only use for galvanic tubes, which may have given him the idea for the ingenious trigger system in his experimental photography.

Using Google Cardboard in Flithy LucreSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Celebrating science, world stereoscopy day 21 June

Wheatstone's paper on stereoscopy marks the birth of a 3-D technology  emblematic of how each generation of scientists builds on earlier discoveries and inventions, extending and reimagining them for new and improved applications. This scientific heritage is to be celebrated.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps