Victorian Virtual Reality

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A means of seeing flat, two dimensional pictures in 3D was first described by Charles Wheatstone, a scientist and prolific inventor in 1838 ….. yes, one hundred and eighty years ago. By the time of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 1851, viewing machines and cameras had developed separately but sufficiently enough to create 3D photos which, when viewed through a special viewer, were staggeringly effective. To see the illusion (and that’s what it really is), they needed hardware and software, the former being the viewing device, the stereoscope, and the latter, picture cards that were inserted into it. There is an issue about the name of the cards. Traditionally, in the UK, they were called stereographs but the American term, stereoview, has, in recent years, become the predominant name worldwide.

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I sometimes include late Victorian examples of these in my talks to students and the initial apathy of teenagers experiencing this ‘ancient’ technology for the first time is always followed, after a few seconds, by an involuntary “wow”. It’s strangely satisfying to impress high-tech teens with Victorian technology.

Anyway, back at the Great Exhibition, Queen Victoria experienced stereoscopy and was definitely amused and started a fascination with 3D imagery that continues today.

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So, how did it work? Two photographs that look identical but aren’t, were stuck onto card and placed in a stereoscope which is designed to make the left eye look at the left image and the right eye the right one. The photographs were taken with a camera with two lenses, the same distance apart as our eyes so, actually, the photos are taken from slightly different perspectives. When the brain ‘sees’ the two images, it merges one with the other and creates the illusion of a real-life scene. The effect is amazing. By the 1860s, stereoviews (sorry, traditionalists) were being mass-produced and Victorians were able to see photos of a vast range of subject matter (including naughty ones) in 3D. Many millions of cards were made between then and the 1930s and, today, there are thousands of original stereoviews on Ebay at very reasonable prices.

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In a later post, I will show some really early stereoviews but, for now, this one is from the 1920s and shows St. George’s Circus in Liverpool. You can see how clear and sharp it is and, in 3D, you really are ‘there’. Was this Victorian virtual reality? Yes, I think it was.

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3 thoughts on “Victorian Virtual Reality

  1. I so enjoy your postings. Thank you for your research; it helps me because I’m interested in the victorian/edwardian period as I role-play Beatrix Potter. But your wide spread of interest is fascinating.

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