The first version of the stereoscope was invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, it was a way of viewing images in 3D. David Brewster would then improve on the design using lenses, this made it much less cumbersome. His design also benefited from the invention and popularisation of photographs. His design was exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and thereafter, there was a commercial boom in stereoscopic sales. Indeed by 1856 more than half a million had been sold. Stereoscopic companies commissioned photographers to travel around the world taking various images of landscapes, buildings and people.
The Stereoscope was immensely popular, it was said that every Victorian home of all classes owned one, and for the middle classes, it would prove to be a popular parlour amusement. They were also marketed for use in the classroom as educational tools. The cards were the first-ever mass-produced photographic images and were a precursor to the era of moving pictures. Even Queen Victoria was a fan. It was her seal of approval that boosted sales and the Stereoscope subsequently became hugely popular. By 1856, more than half a million had been sold, with the trend quickly catching on in America.
The images displayed everything from engineering masterpieces like skyscrapers to wonders from around the globe such as the pyramids of Egypt or temples of Japan. Remarkably these stereographs created a new wave of tourism to these far and distant lands, with the rich wanting to see their Stereoscope views in real life 3D! Very quickly, however, the pictures included comical sketches, educational information, or even news of great disasters- for example, the 1871 Great Fire of Chicago was recorded on a stereograph. In addition, they were used during the First World War, both for use back home, but also for military planning, such as their use in observation planes due to their ability to capture an impression of depth and the contours of the landscape.
By the 1920s the Stereoscope was losing its appeal, as the advent of film and television began to capture the imagination of the audiences. By the Second World War, they had been rebranded as a child’s toy and were sold in bright plastic models with cartoon characters and film stars dominating the stereograph subjects. Sadly production of scenic views was discontinued as recently as 2009, but it is still rather impressive that such a simple device stood the test of time and held its position as a family novelty for 171 years!