Holmes Stereoscope

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Methods of stereoscopic viewing had existed for years prior to 1859, but Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.’s handheld invention revolutionized the device for personal and classroom use. In this device, a divided cardstock image sits in a crevice opposite a divided lens. The operator holds the stereoscope and upon looking through the lens, sees the image with a three-dimensional effect.

Holmes (father of famed United States Supreme Court Justice with the same name) deliberately chose not to patent his invention and instead published the design for anyone to use. (Bak 2012, 155) He further analyzed the stereoscope and its potential in a piece published in The Atlantic in July 1859, where he spoke of the potential for stereoscopic images and photography, stating, “We are looking into stereoscopes as pretty toys, and wondering over the photograph as a charming novelty; but before another generation has passed away, it will be recognized that a new epoch in the history of human progress dates from the time when He who took a pencil of fire from the hand of the ‘angel standing in the sun’ and placed it in the hands of a mortal.” (Holmes 1859, 4)

Until this point, stereoscopes used mirrors, and the devices were often both expensive and impractical for school use. These stereograph libraries consisted almost exclusively of glass images, but with the introduction of Holmes’ inexpensive device, paper stereographs flourished. The introduction of Holmes simple wooden stereoscope also led to a stronger educational technology market, beyond that of exclusively textbooks and chalkboards. Shortly after the invention of the Holmes stereoscope, companies began to market stereoscopic image sets specifically for use in educational settings, with one catalog asserting “Because the stereographs give a third dimension or depth to a scene, they give a semblance of reality as to produce in the child’s mind the same reaction that would follow the actual sight of the thing being photographed.” (Bendis 2006, 2) This argument that students will relate to a new, more lifelike technology can be seen throughout the history of educational technology.

Bak, Meredith A. “Democracy and Discipline: Object Lessons and the Stereoscope in American Education, 1870–1920.” Early Popular Visual Culture 10, no. 2 (May 2012): 147–67.

Bendis, Jared E. Instructional Technology & Academic Computing at Case Western Reserve University. “A History and Future of Stereoscopy in Education,” 2006. pp .1-5.

Holmes, Oliver Wendell. “The American Stereoscope.” Journal of Photography of the George Eastman House (Originally Published in The Philadelphia Photographer) 1, no. 3 (1859 1952): 4.

Buergerniss, Carl. Stereoscope. 1940. Watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil on paper, 36.5 x 45.6cm. National Gallery of Art.