From DaVinci to Wheatstone: Binocular Vision and Stereoscopy Through the Ages

In Chapter One, the history of the understanding of human binocular vision and S3D from ancient times to the Victorian Era is discussed.

Euclid, the Greek  mathematician included theorems that detailed concepts relating to the fact that we perceive a slightly different perspective in each eye as far back as the 4th century BCE in his Treatise on Optics.

Two hundred years later, the Roman physician Galen contributed further to the understanding of human binocular vision in his treatise On the use of the different parts of the Human body.

Leonardo DaVinci, in his 1651 Treatise on Painting writes ”

“Painters often despair of being able to imitate Nature, from observing, that their pictures have not the same relief, nor the same life, as natural objects have in a looking-glass, though they both appear on a plain surface. “

It is impossible that objects in painting should appear with the same relief as those in the looking-glass, unless we only look at them with one eye.”


In the 1838 work by Sir Charles Wheatstone entitled Contributions to the Physiology of Vision. –Part the First. On some remarkable and hitherto unobserved, Phenomena of Binocular Vision, Wheatstone laments DaVinci missing the connection between binocular vision and stereopsis, commenting on this diagram found in DaVinci’s treatise:

Fig. 1

Had LEONARDO DA VINCI taken, instead of a sphere, a less simple figure for the purpose of his illustration, a cube for instance, he would not only have observed that the object obscured from each eye a different part of the more distant field of view, but the fact would also perhaps have forced itself upon his attention, that the object itself presented a different appearance to each eye. He failed to do this, and no subsequent writer within my knowledge has supplied the omission; the projection of two obviously dissimilar pictures on the two retinæ when a single object is viewed, while the optic axes converge, must therefore be regarded as a new fact in the theory of vision. Writes Wheatstone.

In the decades that followed Wheatstone’s paper, and his accompanying invention of the stereoscope S3D visualization device, stereoscopic 3D images in the home gained popularity tremendously.
By the Victorian era, very many middle class homes in the United States contained hand-held stereoscope viewers with stereocard collections.
According to The Center for Civil War Photgraphy, an estimated 70% of all civil war documentary photographs were shot in 3D
There was a 3D craze at the dawn of the 20th century.
Arthur Judge in his 1935 book Stereoscopic Photography, stipulated that one possible cause of the decline in popularity of the stereoscope is that unscrupulous people were simply pasting a 2D picture twice on a stereocard and selling the card as if it in fact contained a stereo pair of images.
Recently I went to the antique fair near where I live and bought a Stereoscope dating back to 1874 for about $15. I bought some stereocards to go with it from various vendors. Most of the images look quite good through the glass optics. Some of the cards are civil war plates that were colorized, one seems to be a time shifted stereopair of the moon, which must have taken careful planning and possibly over a year to produce, and one, in fact, is two identical 2D images pasted onto a stereocard.




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