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Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy, Part II

Posted By Timothy J. Bennett CRA OCT-C, Thursday, September 26, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Milestones, Rivalries and Controversy:
The Origins of Photography and Ophthalmic Photography
Part II, Stereo Photography

The nineteenth century was an age of intellectual pursuit, scientific discovery, and invention. The Victorian Era roughly coincided with the Belle Epoch in Continental Europe and the Gilded Age in the United States. It was during this period that Darwin, Babbage, Pasteur, Maxwell, Morse, Helmholtz, and many others made important advancements in science, medicine, and technology. As demonstrated in Part I of this series, it was also a time of competition, rivalry, and controversy. The brilliant minds of the day often had egos to match their intellect. The race to be listed as the "first” to discover a scientific breakthrough could become an obsession. Eponyms were popular; just about every important new discovery was named for the person that first described it.

A classic example of this competition and controversy occurred in the feud over the discovery of anesthesia in the 1840's when American dentist Horace Wells and his former apprentice William Morton both claimed to be the first to discover the use of inhaled anesthesia. Wells had successfully used anesthesia on several occasions, but was discredited after a failed public demonstration. He then became depressed, began abusing chloroform and eventually committed suicide. Morton remained obsessed with recognition throughout his life, tried to patent ether under a different name, and eventually died penniless. TheAmerican Dental Associationhonored Wells posthumously in 1864 as the discoverer of modern anesthesia, and the American Medical Associationrecognized his achievement in 1870. Morton was similarly recognized later in life and again posthumously. This is just one of many controversies over who was first to make a great new discovery in the Victorian Era. The nineteenth century development of the stereoscope and new theories on stereo vision was another example of professional rivalry and controversy. Fortunately, this story has a happier ending than the anesthesia saga.


The disparity in perspective between the right and left eye and some of the basic principles of binocular vision have been described by various scientists, physicians, and artists beginning as early as 300 B.C. with Greek mathematician Euclid. Around 1600, Italian painter Jacapo Chimenti (1554-1640) made side-by-side drawings possibly meant to represent the different view from each eye. Giovanni Battista della Porta (1538-1615) cited Galen in his writings On Refraction and described the difference in view between a single eye versus both together. Around the same time, Leonardo DaVinci and Jesuit Francois d'Aguillon similarly describe some principles of binocular vision and the perception of "solid” figures when using both eyes together. Aguillon coined the term "stéréoscopique” from the Greek word "stereos” (solid) in a treatise on binocular vision in 1613.

Wheatstone's Stereoscope

It wasn't until the invention of the stereoscope however, that the principle of stereopsis could be more fully described and proven. In 1938, Sir Charles Wheatstone introduced a design for the mirror stereoscope and presented his work on binocular vision to the Royal Society.

"I…. propose that it be called a Stereoscope to indicate its property of representing solid figures.”

Contributions to the Physiology of Vision – Part the First. On Some Remarkable, and Hitherto Unobserved, Phenomena of Binocular Vision.

Sir Charles Wheatstone, F.R.S., Professor of Experimental Philosophy, King's College,
Presented to the Royal Scottish Society of the Arts, London 6/21/1838

Wheatstone described the results of several extensive experiments on the principles of binocular vision and stereopsis. His theories soon influenced the likes of Panum, Hering and Helholtz. Within months of Wheatstone's presentation, photography was born and the logical extension of his experimentation was to attempt stereo photography. By 1841, Wheatstone collaborated with Talbot & Henry Collen to produce the first stereo photographs (calotypes), including statues, buildings, and portraits, the first being of Charles Babbage, inventor of the calculating engine. Early daguerrotypists Armand Fizeau and Antoine Claudet provided the first stereo daguerrotypes to Wheatstone for his stereoscope. Stereo cameras had not yet been introduced so these were all sequential stereo pairs.

Brewster's Stereoscope

Sir David Brewster, a fellow member of the British scientific community and the Royal Society, was fascinated by Wheatstone's apparatus and findings. Both Brewster and Wheatstone were prominent scientists, inventors, and Fellows of the Royal Society. They were contemporaries of William Henry Fox Talbot, Sir John Herschel and the Reverend J.B. Reade, some of the principles in the controversial story surrounding the invention of photography. Both men were friends with Talbot, Brewster having stayed with Talbot for a time.

In 1849, Brewster developed the lenticular stereoscope and binocular camera. His stereoscope design was smaller and more portable than Wheatstone's mirror stereoscope. It consisted of half lenses, cut and positioned to create a prism effect separating convergence from accommodation to facilitate stereopsis of small image pairs.

There wasn't much interest in his design until it was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 by François Soleil and Jules Duboscq, the French opticians who fabricated the instrument for Brewster. The exhibit included stereo daguerreotypes and attracted the attention of Queen Victoria. From there, the popularity of stereoscopes exploded.

Figure 16 from Brewster's 1856 book, The Stereoscope, Its History, Theory, and Construction shows a stereoscope design & built by Jules Duboscq. It looks like something out a of Dr Suess book!

The Feud

Brewster initially embraced Wheatstone's observations and used the Wheatstone stereoscope to conduct his own experiments which eventually led to the invention of the lenticular stereoscope in 1849. Somewhere along the way however, he became disenchanted with Wheatstone and his conclusions. Brewster arrived at some different interpretations of his experiments and started publicly disputing Wheatstone's assertions. It was not the first time that Wheatstone and Brewster had a professional disagreement. In 1832 Brewster did not take kindly to being publicly challenged at a scientific meeting by the younger and less-experienced Wheatstone.

In 1856, Brewster wrote an anonymous letter to the correspondence column of The Times criticizing Wheatstone and disputing the priority of his invention of the stereoscope. A public feud continued in several combative letters to The Times. Brewster's expertise was in optics, so he believed strongly in physical optics and the law of visible direction. Wheatstone's background was originally in acoustics and he felt that perception and the brain played an equally important role in stereopsis. Brewster openly questioned how Wheatstone could take credit for discovering something with his instrument that everyone should know to be true through the simple exercise of closing one eye, then the other. He spent almost the entire first chapter of his 1856 book, The Stereoscope, Its History, Theory, and Construction trying to undermine Wheatstone. Referring to Wheatstone's discoveries, Brewster wrote, "…it is inconceivable on what ground he could imagine himself to be the discoverer of so palpable and notorious a fact as that the pictures of a body seen by two eyes — two points of sight, must be dissimilar.” Wheatstone delayed presentation of part II of his paper on binocular vision for fourteen years (1852).

Brewster insisted that Wheatstone was not the first to invent a stereoscope. He argued that James Elliott, a teacher of mathematics in Edinburgh preceded Wheatstone. Brewster wrote that Elliott "resolved to construct” an instrument in 1834 to demonstrate the disparate view between eyes in relation to distance. Elliott didn't actually construct it until 1839 (after Wheatsone had presented & published). Elliott's was just a fixed septum dividing paired drawings. There were no optics to separate accommodation from convergence and it would not have been useful in conducting extensive experiments on binocular vision. Brewster actually criticized both Wheatstone and Elliott for not having thought of using the incomplete photographic processes of Wedgewood or Davy in the early 1830's to view accurate disparate image pairs rather than simple drawings. Of course there was no way to fix a photographic image so it was permanent until 1839, when Daguerre and Talbot announced their methods. Brewster suggested that Wheatstone could have briefly viewed the unfixed images by candle-light until they faded!

When he failed to undermine Wheatstone by suggesting that Elliott was first to invent the stereoscope, Brewster went further back in history to find someone else. He then suggested that the old paired drawings (from around 1600) by Jacapo Chimenti were produced for a stereoscope, possibly one made by Giovanni Battista della Porta, who was known to have made improvements to the camera obscura. This was pure speculation and again did nothing to discredit Wheatstone.

The motivation for Brewster's obsession is unclear. Much of the feud occurred nearly two decades after Wheatstone's initial paper. Some of it may stem from Wheatstone mentioning a "refracting” stereoscope of his design in his later 1852 paper. This design used prisms and had a similar effect as the Brewster lenticular stereoscope. Wheatstone and Brewster discussed the use of prisms soon after Wheatstone's initial paper in 1838. Brewster felt the idea to use prisms was his, and that Wheatstone's "refracting” stereoscope competed with his design. Could it have been as simple as scientific jealousy? Wade and Ono write, "While Brewster's lenticular stereoscope was popularly adopted in the 1850s, it was Wheatstone's reflecting model that was used by the scientific community.” Disputes like this were a recurring theme with Brewster. He invented the kaleidoscope and defended his priority of invention in print for years. In an ironic twist, his contemporaries argued that the refraction principles it was based on had been known since antiquity. Brewster was also involved in a similar priority dispute for decades over his design of a polyzonal lens similar to the Fresnel (Augustin Fresnel) lens for use in lighthouses.

Brewster expended considerable time and energy trying to disprove and discredit Wheatstone, but ultimately failed. For his part, Wheatstone defended himself and his theories, but the dispute seemed much less an obsession.

Wheatstone and Brewster were pioneers of research on stereoscopic vision, the stereoscope, and indirectly, stereoscopic photography. Both men made important contributions that were summarized by Sir John Herschel at the time of the feud, "Wheatstone invented the stereoscope; Brewster invented a way of looking at stereoscopic pictures.” In a more recent summary (1985) in a discussion of the principles at the core of the scientific debate, Wade and Ono write, "Not only did Wheatstone and Brewster devise different models of the stereoscope, but they also provided disparate views of stereoscopic phenomena that remain unresolved to this day.”

Both of their stereoscopes remain important in viewing ophthalmic stereo images. The Brewster design is used for 35mm slides or small images separated by no more than 2.5 inches, and the Wheatstone mirror stereoscope for large prints or onscreen digital images.

After decades of acrimony the two men eventually reconciled at a meeting of the British Association held in 1867, shortly before Brewster's death. In the end, Brewster and Wheatstone finally agreed to disagree.


Brewster D. The Stereoscope, Its History, Theory, and Construction.1856

Wheastone C. Contributions to the Physiology of Vision – Part the First. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 128, (1838), pp. 371-394

Wheastone C. Contributions to the Physiology of Vision – Part the Second. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 142, (1852), pp. 1-17

Newhall B. Looking Back at Stereo. In Morgan WD, Lester HM. Stereo Realist Manual. 1954

Thompson SP. Wheatstone, Sir Charles. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Morrison-Low AD. Brewster, Sir David. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

W. Le Conte Stevens. The Stereoscope: It's History I. The Popular Science Monthly XXI May 1882

W. Le Conte Stevens. The Stereoscope: It's History II. The Popular Science Monthly XXI June 1882

Wade NJ. Guest essay, Charles Wheatstone. Perception 2002; 31:265-272.

Wade NJ. The Chimenti controversy. Perception, 2003; 32:185-200.

Klooswyck A. Errors in stereo history and the Chimenti hoax.

Wade NJ. Guest editorial essay. Perception 2009; 38:633-637.

Ono H, Wade NJ. Resolving discrepant results of the Wheatstone experiment. Psychol Res 1985; 47:135-142

Wade N, Ono HJ. The stereoscopic views of Wheatstone and Brewster. Psychol Res 1985; 47:125-133

Leggat R. A History of Photography from its beginnings till the 1920s

Bennett TJ. Viewing side-by-side stereo images. Journal of Ophthalmic PhotographyVolume 34:2, pg 73-75, Fall 2012

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