Early 3D

The British Contribution to Early Stereoscopic Photography

Photography progressed very rapidly during the 19th century, with contributors from all over Europe and America. The latest developments were eagerly studied by all photographers who adapted and developed the latest ideas with great enthusiasm. This paper just records some of the British contributions. Queen Victoria was said to be enthralled by stereoscopic photography; she saw her first 3D images at the Great Exhibition at Chrystal Palace in 1851. The Queen’s interest in stereo photography is often claimed to have started a great new craze which spawned an entirely new industry.

However, the 3D story really starts in June 1838. Professor Sir Charles Wheatstone, of Wheatstone Bridge fame in electrical circuitry, published a scientific paper in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (Volume 128, pages 371-394), describing how we see images in 3D. To support his ideas, he did some simple 3D drawings. In order to see the drawings in 3D, he invented, in the 1830s, the Wheatstone Stereoscope, an instrument still used today in radiography. There is an online facsimile of Wheatstone’s scientific paper, which shows illustrations of the stereoscope and some of his original drawings, see http://www.stereoscopy.com/library/wheatstone-paper1838.html.

Wheatstone’s original stereoscope, Fig 1, was a large, rather cumbersome instrument, but it had the advantage that large images could be examined. Wheatstone made a number of different models of his stereoscope, including one which folded neatly into a box. His original instruments have been preserved in the archives of Kings College, London, where Wheatstone worked.

Wheatstone’s paper was published about a year before Frenchman, Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot, of Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire, published their work on the discovery of photographic processes in 1839. Hence, a 3D viewer was in existence before the invention of photography. In 1840, Wheatstone wrote to Fox Talbot, inventor of the Calotype photographic process, and Antoine Claudet, a licensee of the Daguerreotype process working in London, and suggested that they make some stereoscopic photographs. Fox Talbot made Calotype stereoscopic pairs of photographs and sent them to Wheatstone in the same year. The images that Fox Talbot made are the first photographic 3D images ever made. The correspondence between the two men still exists1,2,3, but unfortunately the images have been lost. Some authors state that Claudet was the first to make Daguerreotype stereo images, but the date attributed is 1842, a year after Fox Talbot’s work. There was much rivalry between British and French photographic inventors at this time, but also considerable collaboration. The French Daguerreotype gave far superior reproduction of detail on the polished copper plates used, compared with Fox Talbot’s Calotype process, but the former suffered from the disadvantage that the images could not easily be reproduced, a considerable disadvantage for publication in books.

Sir David Brewster constructed the first lens based stereoscope in 1849, which was far more compact than Wheatstone’s model. However, British manufacturers were not able to make lenses of the quality Brewster required, so he turned to Duboscq of Paris to supply the stereoscope. Brewster demonstrated his stereoscope at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Chrystal Palace and presented one to Queen Victoria.

Early stereoscopic images were obtained by moving the camera about 62mm and taking a second view of the same subject from a slightly different position. This was fine as long as nothing in the image moved in the time between the images were taken. But since, at the time, exposures were quite long, problems often occurred and early images can be seen with, for example, a person or animal in one image, which is not shown in the other image. Early stereoscopic pairs of photos were taken using various contraptions, enabling the whole camera to move the required distance. In 1853 Latimer Clark was one of the first to demonstrate a frame which moved the camera the required distance in order to take sequential stereo pairs. In 1854 John A Spencer demonstrated a double width camera having a moveable lens for taking sequential stereo pairs. The camera was fitted with an internal septum which separated the two images. The Manchester photographer John Benjamin Dancer was one of the first to make a twin lens stereo camera in 1853, which he patented in 1856 and offered it for sale.

The first projection of stereoscopic images was by John Anderson, of Birmingham, in 1893. He projected the images through Nicol prisms, or tourmaline crystals, naturally occurring polarizers, onto a screen of aluminium foil. When viewed through matched polarising filters, the audience could see 3D images in the same manner as used in Stereoscopic Society and International Stereoscopic Union meetings today.

Theodore Brown, of Salisbury, invented a system of mirrors attached to a single lens camera creating twin fields of view, enabling stereoscopic image capability from a single lens camera. Brown patented the device in 1894. The device was the forerunner of several beam splitter devices which became popular about 50 years later. In 1903 Brown published a book “Stereoscopic Phenomena of Light and Sight”, which was republished in facsimile form by Reel 3D Enterpriser Inc. in 1993. It is an interesting insight to the developments of the time, many of which are long forgotten. The adverts for the latest developments of the time are particularly fascinating.

The most important early producer of stereo views was the London Stereoscopic Company, founded in Oxford Street, London in 1854. This company employed many famous early photographers, including William England, William Russel Sedgefield, and Thomas Richard Williams (see later). They produced 350 stereoscopic views of the Cristal Palace Exhibition. William England travelled to the Alps and produced an amazing set of images in association with the Alpine Club. By 1856 the London Stereoscopic Company advertised that it held over 10,000 stereoscopic images, the largest in Europe. The company also published views by other photographers, such as William Grundy. The fortunes of the company declined over the years and they eventually sold their images to Getty Images. The company closed in 1922.

A company by the same name has been reintroduced in 2008 by Brian May, the guitarist in the group Queen. Brian researched the images of TR Williams, particularly the set known as “Scenes From Our Village”. By careful detective work Brian demonstrated that the village shown in these images was Hinton Waldrist, in Oxfordshire, and he has shown that many of the buildings in the village can be identified as those in TR William’s work. Brian published the book “A Village Lost and Found” with co-author Elena Vidal in 2009. It’s a fascinating read. It contains superb reproductions of the original tinted stereo images and some modern images of the same subjects, for comparison. Several other books containing reproductions of old stereo photographs have also been produced by the new London Stereoscopic Company.

In 1854 Negretti and Zambra Co obtained the rights to publish stereo views of Crystal Palace in Sydenham, south London and later they sponsored Francis Firth’s expedition to Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia, and published many of his stereo views. N & Z published stereo views of Java taken from 1857 to 1863 by Walter B Woodbury, inventor of the Woodbury photographic process. N & Z also sponsored Pierre Rossier to travel to China, Philippines and Thailand, publishing his stereo images on his return, the first stereo views to be published of those countries. In 1857 they manufactured a ‘Magic Stereoscope’, containing additional lenses giving greater magnification at the turn of a button. The instrument was fitted with an adjustable stand for desktop viewing and the base was elaborately decorated. The company diversified later into the manufacture scientific instruments.

In 1858 the first book book illustrated with original stereographs was published in London. The book by the astronomer Charles Piazzi Smyth is ‘Teneriffe, an Astronomer´s experiment: or, specialities of a residence above the clouds’.

In 1862 another large scale exhibition was held in London; The International Exhibition, or the Great London Exposition. The London Stereoscopic Company organised the display of stereoscopic views by famous stereo photographers William England and William Russel Sedgefield. At the Exhibition, the company took an average of £800 per day by selling stereo views. A book containing modern reproductions of the images was published in 2007 “3D Expo 1862: a Magic Journey to Victorian England”, published by Discovery Books, Edited by Michael Tongue.

There were many independent stereo photographers who produced impressive work; including Francis Bedford who produced sets of images of many English counties and George Washington Wilson of Aberdeen, famous for the spectacular detail of his interiors. Roger Fenton, well known for his images of the Crimean War, produced many fine stereo views of England and Wales. Unfortunately, many of the oldest stereoviews bear no name of the photographer; some only have handwritten information on the back giving the site and date of the photograph. Others give no clue to the location or photographer, probably to avoid prosecution for patent infringement, as both the Daguerreotype and Calotype processes were patented in Britain.

In 1893 a Stereoscopic Postal Exchange club was founded as a section of the Photographic Society of Great Britain, now the Royal Photographic Society. The name was changed to the Stereoscopic Society in 1896, soon after it became an independent society. It is the oldest established stereoscopic society in the world, and currently has a membership of over 300, mainly from the UK, but it also includes members from many overseas countries. Members meet in London and Coventry between October and April, with an additional meeting in Bury (a joint meeting between the Stereoscopic Society and the Third dimension Society). There is an annual convention, normally held in May and occasional outside meetings in summer.

However, in the early 20th century other developments were taking place, such as the development of moving images, and later, when the moving images started talking; stereo photography fell from mainstream interest. It was kept alive by dedicated enthusiasts in stereoscopic societies in UK and worldwide. Interest in stereoscopy blossomed again in the 1950s and 60s with early 3D anaglyph films, but fell away later. Now Digital 3D, including 3D TV, presents further opportunities for 3D enthusiasts to bring stereo photography to wider public interest.

Colin Metherell, Chair, Stereoscopic Society, 2017.


  1. Private communication, Curator of the Fox Talbot Museum, Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire.
  2. Private communication, Curator of the National Media Museum, Bradford, West Yorkshire.
  3. Transcriptions of some of the correspondence of Fox Talbot can be viewed on the website of MeMontfort University; http://www.foxtalbot.dmu.ac.uk/letters/name.php?bcode=Whea-C&pageNo=0