In “From Phantom Image to Perfect Vision: Physiological Optics, Commercial Photography, and the Popularization of the Stereoscope,” Laura Burd Schiavo argues that the stereoscope evolved from a scientific instrument to a commercial amusement over the second half of the nineteenth century. The stereoscope was invented in 1838 by Charles Wheatstone, an English scientist who hoped the technology would enhance his understanding of how the human eye perceives depth. The technology was simple: two slides displaying the same image from slightly different angles are placed in front of a two-lens viewer. When the side-by-side slides reach a critical distance from the viewer, the stereoscope creates an optical effect where the two flat images merge into a three-dimensional tableau.
Wheatstone’s invention was groundbreaking in the field of physiological optics. Stereoscopy demonstrated, for the first time, that the body and its positionality played a productive role in determining what we see and how we see it. This rejected the longstanding theory established during the Renaissance that vision was always objective, linear, and could be understood through geometry. The medium of stereoscopy suggested that vision was in fact subjective and could be easily manipulated based on where the eye and an object meet.
Schiavo argues that this initial, scientific function of stereoscopy was challenged by the 1860s as commercial photographers began selling personal stereoscopes as the latest parlor attraction. With the addition of photographic images rather than Wheatstone’s rudimentary drawings, consumers could admire three-dimensional views of Niagara Falls, Yosemite, the Eiffel Tower, and a Civil War battle field all in the convenience of their parlor rooms. “Stereo cards” became mass-produced souvenirs at tourist attractions that were shipped to friends and families or kept as mementos of personal explorations.
Through serving a new commercial function, Schiavo asserts that the stereoscope took on a new significance. Stereoscopes were praised for their realism and marketed to consumers as presenting a scene exactly as the human eye would view it in nature. Thus the ideology behind the commercial success of the stereoscope was at odds with the ideology behind its scientific success. Rather than reveal the subjectivity of vision, as originally intended, the commercial stereoscope was believed to present an objective reality.
While a contemporary concern of investing in new technology is that it will too quickly become obsolete, Schiavo presents a case study where the opposite occurs. The technology of the stereoscope remained consistent throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, yet its utility as a scientific instrument became obsolete. When it transitioned into a consumer good, the stereoscope became an international sensation that inspired an alternative popular understanding of vision. Other media may follow a similar path: the ultimate cultural significance of a medium may diverge from its intended function. Furthermore, a technologically stable medium may be ideologically unstable if used in only one context. The study of “old” media like the photographic stereoscope offers insight into how we use and assign significance to “new” media in the future.
Laura Burd Schiavo, “From Phantom Image to Perfect Vision: Physiological Optics, Commercial Photography, and the Popularization of the Stereoscope,” pg. 113-135, in New Media, 1740-1915 (MIT Press, 2004).