Presenting Our Past

New Perspectives: The MCHS Stereoscope


Flat images on stereocards, when viewed through a stereoscope, produce a 3D image.

With yet another 3D film dominating the box offices and breaking records, Hollywood seems determined to push the technology as the new industry standard. Although we’re seeing a resurgence in interest in stereoscopic film, 3D technology goes back much farther than James Cameron’s Avatar. In fact, the Milwaukee County Historical Society has, in its archives, proof of the long and varied history of bringing three dimensions to flat images.

As long as man has been taking photographs, it seems he has been interested in creating three-dimensional images to replicate human vision. The practice of stereoscopy even predates the practical photographic process by about a year. In 1838, Sir Charles Wheatstone developed a primitive stereoscope using mirrors and hand-drawings. Like all stereoscopes, Wheatstone’s takes two individual two-dimensional photographs (or in his case sketches) and directs their image towards the viewer’s eye in a way that tricks it into seeing a three-dimensional image.

A man by the name of David Brewster suggested using lenses, instead of mirrors, to direct the image toward both eyes. His idea was put into practice by Jules Duboscq, who used both lenses and daguerreotypes when he debuted his own version of the stereoscope at the The Great Exhibition of 1851. Almost overnight an entire industry based around 3D photography sprung up in response to the fanfare surrounding Duboscq’s portrait of Queen Victoria. Stereographers eagerly sought to capture views for the new medium and feed the demand for three-dimensional images.


MCHS’s Stereoscope

During this Golden Age of Stereoscopy, Milwaukee was not immune to the feverish scramble for images to fill 3D viewing devices. The Milwaukee County Historical Society has its very own stereoscope along with scores of stereocards all dating from the late 19th and early 20th century. The cards depict everything from Milwaukee’s ever-growing skyline to cows grazing on open pastures. The scenes are not limited to the Milwaukee area – MCHS also possesses stereocards featuring images from all around Wisconsin. Stereoscards featuring the bluffs along the St. Croix and the capitol building in Madison are particularly impressive. Not only do these stereocards bring old photographs into the third dimension, they also provide an insight in what it was like to live in Milwaukee at the time of the burgeoning fad. In many ways, life, culture and entertainment during this time period were less complex. In today’s world of moving three-dimensional images powered by complex electronics, the sheer simplicity of the technology behind stereoscopes becomes all the more impressive. Below are just a few of the stereocards MCHS has in its possession. If you’re talented at unfocusing your vision, you should be able to see the resulting 3D image (For some tips read this).

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Wheatstone’s impact on popular entertainment still resonates today. Three-dimensional films reached their heyday in the early 1950s, when anaglyph technology (screens that utilize those ubiquitous red and cyan glasses) was introduced into many theatres. In the later half of the 20th century, many children played with their View-Masters – the shiny red plastic toy that allows kids to see multiple 3D scenes by inserting the circular “reels” into the viewer. In the 1990s, Magic Eye’s stereograms were all the rage. Technological advancements have even allowed for the development of “glasses-free” three-dimensional viewing.

With the pervasiveness of high-quality digital cameras as stand-alone devices or on smartphones, it has become possible to make your very own stereogram, much like those in the Historical Society’s archives. The process is surprisingly simple. Below are two images of the MCHS building taken with only a smartphone in hand. Again, if you’re skilled at unfocusing your eyes, a three-dimensional image should appear. Try it out for yourself and impress your friends!

mchs stereoview final

“Unfocus” your eyes until the two white dots merge in the center. A custom 3D image of the MCHS building will then appear.

This history of bringing three dimensions to flat images is as old and varied as photography itself. Technologies and processes for creating these images have waxed and waned over the years, but public interest in the results have remained high. So if you’re one of the many heading to the movie theatres this weekend to see Peter Jackson’s latest adaptation of a Tolkien novel and the technology piques your interest in three-dimensional images, be sure to stop by the Milwaukee County Historical Society to see the precursor to it all: the humble stereoscope.


Stereoscope with stereocard. Come see it for yourself at the Milwaukee County Historical Society!


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