Classic victorian stereoscopy

Professor Charles Wheatstone, later Sir Charles Wheatstone, began the craze for three dimensional images which existed in Victorian times. Here is the lecture to the Royal Society. An all-time classic.

Wheatstone’s paper

Here is the reply by Joseph Towne, 24 years later. Towne spent his life from 1825 to his death in 1879 working at Guy’s Hospital, London. He made about one thousand wax moulages of diseased parts of the body, and also a number of magnificent marble busts.

A great artist, and a middling scientist, his work is not as inspired as that of Wheatstone. Nevertheless, it is thought-provoking and worthy of preservation.

Towne’s paper

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Useful links below.

There were a few amateur experiments at emulating three-dimensional vision prior to the classic 1838 lecture of the then Professor Charles Wheatstone.


Nobody, however - not even Leonardo da Vinci - had realised that stereoscopic perception relies on the fusing of two DISSIMILAR images.


If you hold a hand up at about forty degrees to your left eye, and at the level of the eye, it might be eight inches away. It will be ten or so inches away from the other eye, and at an angle of about thirty degrees to the plane of your face.


Thus, both the SIZE and the GEOMETRY will be radically different.


We now know that we fuse the image with the mind by STOCHASTIC methods. We perceive two lines, one per eye, that are ROUGHLY the same - even though there may be a slight blurring due to focus. This is an IMPRESSION.


Using pulse-frequency modulation, the brain CANNOT evaluate such a situation to better than about twenty percent - for example, match the lengths of the lines to over twenty percent.


However, under stochastic laws, the precision of the perception rises as the SQUARE ROOT of the number of observations.


So in the multiple, parallel SUPERCOMPUTER that is the brain, where there are about ten billion neurones, or brain cells, a FLOOD of such IMPRESSIONS is used to raise the accuracy of perception.


This has the merit that although the brain is being seemingly wasted by millions of cells attending to the same task, when minor damage occurs to the brain it continues to be unaffected because there are always other channels that can deliver the required impression.


In 1838, Wheatstone not only anticipated modern neurological knowledge by refuting that two identical images are simply overlapped, but devised an ingenious experiment to prove his point.


The eyes do not NEED to play over the image to measure the distance by triangulation. This was NEW to the world, at the time when he said it.


He "GLUED" images to his retinae, simply by dazzling himself by their brightness. The afterglow - which he called "SPECTRA" - created a stereoscopic impression even though it was IMPOSSIBLE to play his eyes over the images.


Today we know that we peceive depth in the REAR OF THE LIMBIC SYSTEM. The limbic system is the part of the brain that turns data into "FEELINGS".


At the back of the brain is the monochrome vision centre, and the CEREBELLUM which contains the "DEVICE DRIVERS" - the reflex actions to steer the eyes and limbs.


So we steer the eyes into stereopsis, and the monochrome centre feeds to the limbic system a flood of reassurances that the shape has been understood.


The limbic system then "FEELS" the shape.


So Wheatstone's observations are supported by modern neurological knowledge.


Beyond this, Wheatstone made an exact study of the geometry - using mathematical structures such a regular cube or the frustrum of a pyramid.


For the first time, each of the two images was tailored to its eye.


The lithographer J. Basire - or perhaps Wheatstone himself - then playfully created an image of an arch. The draughtsmanship was guided by the exact geometrical knowledge that Wheatstone had amassed.


It was perhaps the first of the stereoscopic images that were purely for entertainment that were now to flood the world, as the craze for this new novelty spread.


Twenty years later, photography arrived - and the Victorians rushed to buy. It was as if the boom would never end.


Then another craze arrived - the "What the Butler Saw" machine, and MOTION pictures. Stereoscopy faded - but never went away.




Lenticular film supplier (off site).

Lenticular film supplier, 50 or 60 DPI (off site).

International Stereoscopic Union (off site).

Mission 3D links page (off site).


Wehner Moirétechnik