Wooden stereo viewing device, late 19th century.
Wooden stereo viewing device, late 19th century. Swiss National Museum

3D in the 19th century

Stereoscopics, the three-dimensional depiction of two-dimensional images, captivated viewers across the globe in the 19th century. And the phenomenon helped to cement Switzerland’s status as a highly desirable tourist destination.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

In the 1960s and 70s it could be found in almost every child’s bedroom: the ViewMaster. With these ‘plastic binoculars’, you could immerse yourself in the world of Mowgli, Globi or Winnetou. You simply inserted the cardboard disc with the pictures into the ViewMaster and clicked through the story. But it wasn’t just coloured pictures that you saw through the binoculars, it was the jungle or the Wild West – in 3D!
ViewMasters and discs like these were hugely popular in the 1960s and 1970s.
ViewMasters and discs like these were hugely popular in the 1960s and 1970s.
ViewMasters and discs like these were hugely popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Wikimedia
The ViewMaster came into production in 1939, but stereoscopic imaging is much older. British physicist Charles Wheatstone had presented his research on stereoscopy a full century earlier, in 1838. The stereoscopic process made it possible to render images with a three-dimensional impression of depth. 3D vision requires a viewing device through which the left and right eyes can look separately at two slightly different, two-dimensional images. The brain’s visual centre uses this perception to construct a three-dimensional image.
Portrait of Charles Wheatstone.
Portrait of Charles Wheatstone. Wellcome Collection

Global mass medium

Soon after its invention stereoscopy exploded into a global mass medium, hand in hand with the new technology of photography, introduced just a year later. British and American publishing houses in particular contributed to this popularity, offering the products at affordable prices and selling them around the world. The nascent tourism industry, and the associated desire to travel, also drove the stereoscopic phenomenon. For a long time holidays away were out of reach for most people, so imaginary travel with picture cards became a popular hobby among the middle classes. Immersing oneself in the visual world of far-off countries satisfied the yen to see distant places, and provided a ready talking point in genteel salons and parlours. Soon the world was gripped by ‘stereomania’, a collecting fever that was encouraged by the serial nature of the stereoscopic cards.
A woman admires a Valais glacier, around 1865.
A woman admires a Valais glacier, around 1865. Swiss National Museum
Mountainscapes were one of the most popular image motifs, and the spotlight automatically turned on Switzerland. Scenic landscapes and city views were devoured across the globe. But there were also pictures of day-to-day life, or the country’s rapidly growing infrastructure, to marvel at. At the beginning of the 20th century, the emerging moving pictures industry began to oust ‘three-dimensional’ photographs as a mass medium. Stereoscopic imagery was falling out of favour until the ViewMaster brought the technology back into the worldwide arena once again and, especially, into the bedrooms of millions of children.
Train in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, around 1910.
Train in the Lauterbrunnen Valley, around 1910. Swiss National Museum
Interestingly, stereoscopy is set to make another barnstorming comeback. Toy manufacturers and digital companies use the concept to sweep their customers off into computer-generated 3D universes. But now it’s no longer just a question of immersing yourself in other worlds; it’s all about actually entering those worlds and moving about in them. Thanks to the interactive possibilities, the potential for a global money-spinner has come around again.

Further posts

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Swiss National Museum
Landesmuseum Zürich
Museumstrasse 2
P.O. Box
8021 Zurich

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).