The Optical Wonder of the Age

The Optical Wonder of the Age

Roger Taylor (De Montfort University, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-4932-3.ch001
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The birth of three-dimensional photography was highly controversial with much heated debate and rivalry from its proponents who competed to be first. This chapter highlights the historical background of 3-D by quoting The Great Exhibition of 1850 and the birth of commercial stereoscopic photography. For the first time audiences were introduced to Brewster's stereoscope, allied to Daguerre's photographic images and so successful was public reaction that by 1852 the system had become a commercial triumph with much to be gained. During the following decade the new steam railway network rapidly engulfed much of the British Isles and Europe, making the distribution of mass replicated stereo-views within easy reach for many. Indeed entrepreneurs, such as John Nottage, commissioned sets of stereo-views and built a catalogue of more than 10,000 stereo image pairs that are still highly sought after in todays auction houses. Public interest peaked around 1870 and thereafter began to decline, due in part to the stereo photograph, or pair, becoming ubiquitous. Roger Taylor offers a glimpse into that period of history when enthusiasm for the stereo photograph has never been surpassed.
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The Dawn Of Stereoscopy

After weeks of waiting, months of building, and years of detailed planning, the morning of May Day 1851 dawned bright and clear – a perfect day for the state opening of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. From the earliest hours it seemed that the whole of London was on the move, with countless carriages, cabs, gigs and landaus ‘pouring in from all parts of the metropolis and the surrounding districts…whole masses of pedestrians marched in mighty phalanx towards the scene of action’, some having travelled great distances to be present at this historic moment (Ill. Lond. News, 1851). Huge crowds gathered in the park, and in the surrounding streets every window was filled with onlookers hopeful of catching a glimpse of the royal party. With the pervading air of excitement and anticipation it was if the entire nation was aware of the day’s significance.

The idea of holding an international exhibition in London had been suggested by Prince Albert during the summer of 1849 and, during the months that followed, his initial proposal gradually took shape, growing both in scale and significance. In January 1850 the scheme was formally assigned to a Royal Commission under the presidency of the Prince himself; this took charge of every aspect of its management, from invitations for submissions to the licensing of refreshments and plans for the restoration of lost property. Invitations to submit exhibits were sent to all parts of the world, and to house everything the Commission planned a building of an unprecedented scale, to cover more than twenty acres.

Joseph Paxton’s radical design for a structure made entirely of glass and steel to impart lightness and elegance helped to capture the imagination of the public, who promptly named the building the ‘Crystal Palace’. The Times pronounced it ‘the largest building ever made by human hands without mortar, brick, or stone’, and marvelled at the speed of its prefabricated construction (Times, 1850).

From the outset the Royal Commissioners imposed a classification system that provided a clear rationale and a coherent structure to the organisation of the exhibits throughout the exhibition. Thirty classes of object were grouped under four broad headings, namely raw materials, machinery, manufactures and fine arts, which it was believed would allow the diligent observer to appreciate the link between the raw materials and the finished article. The early decision to make the exhibition competitive proved influential, as this would be an important incentive for manufacturers to enter exhibits of the highest quality. Juries made up of international specialists representing each of the classes were appointed. With more than 7000 exhibitors and a huge number of individual exhibits, the task facing them was Herculean. Starting in May, they worked diligently until the close of the exhibition in October, when they announced more than 5000 awards, ranging from the Council Medal awarded for work of outstanding excellence, to Honourable Mention for those less deserving (Clowes et al, 1863). To commemorate the exhibition, every contributor was given a bronze medal bearing a portrait of Prince Albert.

As the exhibition building was so vast, and the exhibits it housed so numerous, there was too much for the visitor to see in a day. Indeed, it took Queen Victoria herself thirty-five visits to work her way through everything. For most people this leisurely approach was impracticable. Instead, visitors with only a day to spare needed to navigate their way through the exhibition using one of the published guides, which drew attention to the most significant objects on chosen routes through the building. Even then it was no easy task, as there was a bewildering amount of detail to absorb, and even the most dedicated visitor could do little more than skim the surface. A wiser option was to pay attention to objects of personal interest, whether the glittering attraction of the Koh-I-Noor diamond or something more practical such as Ferrabee’s Patent Grass Cutter for Mowing Lawns, or Culverwell’s Portable Domestic Vapour Bath.

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