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Early 3D images

The invention of photography may have brought a more reliable way of reproducing an accurate image of a scene or person than a sketchbook and pen, but the resulting image could be rather flat and lacking in perspective. Photographic pioneers rapidly sought ways to give these images greater depth. Sir Charles Wheatstone made the first attempt when he invented a binocular type device called a stereoscope in 1832. The daguerrotypes and calotypes available at the time worked poorly in his device and the idea did not take off. The process gained new impetus in the late 1840s when Sir David Brewster modified the design to produce a refracting stereoscope, which he exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where Queen Victoria was impressed. The wider population followed their monarch’s lead, and within three months over 250,000 refracting stereoscopes had been sold. The collodion process meant that good quality stereoscopic prints could be readily duplicated, and within five years the London Stereoscopic Company had gone into mass production of stereo cards. In 1861 Oliver Wendell Holmes, with help from Joseph L. Bates, designed a hand-held stereoscopic viewer that allowed individual adjustments to viewing distances. It was lighter, and cheaper, and as it was not patented, copies quickly flooded the market.

Stereoscopic viewer
Stereoscopic viewer

The Library has a stereoscopic viewer based on this design, lightweight, and easy to use. The photograph is placed in the holder, which can be moved closer to or further from the eye piece to adjust the focus to suit the person using it.

View of the College (1863 or earlier)
Stereoscopic view of the College (1863 or earlier)

Among our stereoscopic prints are views of the College before and after the building of the new Chapel, which on 12 May 2019 celebrates 150 years since its opening. This view of the great gate was taken by William Mayland, who started producing stereoscopic views in Cambridge in the late 1850s. On Saturday 4 July 1857 the Cambridge Independent Press enthused about: ‘some beautiful specimens of stereoscope taken by Mr. Mayland, an artist of considerable skill in the town,’ further suggesting that: ‘These specimens of this comparatively new and interesting art will elicit general admiration; and will especially be acceptable to those who may leave Cambridge, as they will enable them, when many miles away, vividly to recall to their minds many of the College scenes of their youth – scenes, perhaps, hardly to be surpassed in miniature beauty by any other town in England’.  The shot pictured above must have been taken before the start of building work for the new Chapel, as no scaffolding can be seen, dating the photograph to 1863 or earlier. The roof of the old Chapel building can just be seen between the two chimney stacks on the far right of the picture.

View of the New Chapel ca. 1869
Stereoscopic view of the New Chapel ca. 1869

The new Chapel itself was, of course, an obvious subject for photographs. This one shows what must in 1869 have been a startlingly different view, taken from the Bridge Street end of St John’s Street. The photograph was probably taken very shortly after the new building was completed. According to an inscription on the reverse, the photograph appears to have belonged to F.W. Metcalfe of 12 Trinity Street, Cambridge. He was not a member of the College. W. Metcalfe & Sons, the printers of the College magazine The Eagle, occupied 10 Trinity Street at the time.

View from All Saints churchyard 1907
Stereoscopic view from All Saints churchyard 1907

This shot dates from the latter years of 3D photographs. The format remained popular into the beginning of the twentieth century, but its appeal declined with advent of moving pictures. This photograph taken from All Saints churchyard shows a view of the Divinity School, built for the University on College land in 1878, and the front of St John’s with the Chapel tower clearly visible behind. This photograph is copyright 1907. It was produced by Underwood & Underwood, an  American company, who at one time were the largest producers of stereoviews world-wide, churning out 25,000 prints a day. In 1900 they started producing box sets of themed photographs and popular tourist destinations. This print may well have once been part of a Cambridge set.


This Special Collections Spotlight article was contributed on 10 May 2019 by the Special Collections Librarian.