Fine British Stereoscopes and their makers

Early Stereoscopes, Part 2

written for the stereosite by Paul Burford, United Kingdom

The Brew­ster stere­o­scope was with­out a doubt the sin­gle most pop­u­lar design of stere­o­scope from 1851 until the 1930s. Part 1 of the series about Ear­ly stere­o­scopes illus­trates its ear­ly devel­op­ments. But not long after the Brew­ster view­er first appeared and inter­est in stere­oscopy grew, the mar­ket for view­ers grew as well and many oth­er designs of stere­o­scopes appeared, includ­ing some very fine British viewers.

When George Low­den sug­gest­ed larg­er lens­es to improve the view­ing expe­ri­ence, Sir David Brew­ster didn’t agree. He was set on his design of the taper­ing hand held view­er with its brass eye­pieces and small lens­es. How­ev­er, oth­ers saw the ben­e­fit of larg­er lens­es and a new design of view­er emerged. There was no space for larg­er lens­es on the nar­row lens board of the Brew­ster view­er and there­fore, a larg­er lens board was need­ed. This is why the slid­ing box view­er was conceived.

George Knight’s design (1854) took the “larg­er lens improve­ment” to the extreme with its goth­ic lens­es. There was noth­ing to be gained by hav­ing lens­es this large oth­er than the aes­thet­ic appear­ance of the view­er. The Knight’s Cos­mora­ma would have been expen­sive to pro­duce, the lens­es being cut from a sin­gle 3.5–4.25” lens (88–108cm). Ebenez­er Scott’s view­er (1856) used lens­es just over 2” (5cm) in diam­e­ter mount­ed behind 1.75” (4.5cm) aper­tures. Negret­ti and Zam­bra amongst oth­ers also pro­duced slid­ing box view­ers with 2” lens­es and trum­pet shaped eyepieces.

George Knight’s Cos­mora­ma viewer
Slid­ing box view­er by Ebenez­er Scott
Negret­ti and Zam­bra view­er with trum­pet shaped eyepieces

The clairvoyant viewer

Reg­is­tered in 1858 by Hen­ry Swan, the design of this view­er enabled the view­ing of stereo pairs pic­tured in books as well as tra­di­tion­al stere­o­graphs. It is a very fine and del­i­cate view­er which came trimmed in red, blue or green. The ver­sion most com­mon­ly seen comes in its own attrac­tive dome topped stor­age box which also has com­part­ments for stor­ing stere­o­graphs. The del­i­cate nature of this view­er is the rea­son why the stor­age box with its dome top and ivory plaque The Stereo­scop­ic Trea­sury often appears for sale with­out a viewer.

A less com­mon fold­ing leather cov­ered ver­sion of this view­er came with a leather slip case which also had a stor­age com­part­ment for stereographs.

Smith Beck and Beck

After being employed by James Smith for sev­er­al years Richard Beck became a part­ner in the busi­ness in 1847 (Smith and Beck). When Richard’s broth­er Joseph joined the busi­ness in 1851 it was renamed Smith Beck and Beck soon after in 1854. The com­pa­ny then became R & J Beck in 1865 when James Smith retired.

Smith Beck and Beck were well estab­lished opti­cal instru­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers and famous for their high qual­i­ty micro­scopes when 1851 came along with the Great Exhi­bi­tion which pop­u­larised the stere­o­scope and cre­at­ed a mar­ket for this new instrument.

With the Brew­ster style stere­o­scopes being all the rage, Smith and Beck pro­duced their own vari­ant, whilst oth­er man­u­fac­tur­ers repli­cat­ed the orig­i­nal Brew­ster design. Smith and Beck pro­duced a top load­ing mod­el with the light reflect­ing flap extend­ing all the way to the edges and rear of the view­er and thus allow­ing access for the inser­tion of the stere­o­graph. It also had a rack and pin­ion focus­ing lens board.

The Achromatic Stereoscope

The view­er we all know and refer to as the “Smith Beck and Beck” was first pro­duced in 1858. It was quite a nov­el design with the view­er invert­ing into a match­ing wood­en box which pro­tect­ed it when not in use and con­vert­ed to a stand for the view­er when in use. The cost was £3 10s in Wal­nut or £3 3s in mahogany (they did go on to pro­duce them in oth­er woods). Match­ing cab­i­nets were also avail­able which pro­vid­ed stor­age for the view­er along with the own­ers col­lec­tion of views. These were avail­able in dif­fer­ent sizes or as just stor­age cab­i­nets for stereographs.

The Smith Beck and Beck Achro­mat­ic Stereoscope
Dou­ble door cab­i­net with posi­tion for view­er on top and inter­nal stor­age for view­er and stereographs

There were well over three thou­sand of these pro­duced and a great many have sur­vived, prob­a­bly due to them being pro­tect­ed by their stor­age box­es and cabinets.

Sin­gle door cab­i­net with view­er posi­tion on top and inter­nal stor­age for view­er and stereographs
Sin­gle door cab­i­net with view­er posi­tion on top and inter­nal stor­age for just stereographs
The Mirror Stereoscope

A year lat­er Smith Beck and Beck reg­is­tered anoth­er design which enabled the view­ing of stereo pairs in a book as well as tra­di­tion­al glass and card stere­o­graphs. This view­er also came with a pro­tec­tive stor­age box.

The Parlour Stereoscope

Some time after 1865 and the company’s name chang­ing to R & J Beck, they added a 50 slide table view­er to their cat­a­logue. Pro­duced in burl wal­nut and with the top dri­ve shaft mount­ed in bear­ings, it has the smoothest action of all table viewers.

The London Stereoscopic Company

The Lon­don Stereo­scop­ic Com­pa­ny did not have a unique flag­ship view­er like Negret­ti and Zam­bra but they also pro­duced / com­mis­sioned / sold a fine range of view­ers includ­ing some fine par­lour view­ers with dec­o­ra­tive band­ing inlays and strong wood­en slide hold­ers con­nect­ed to each oth­er with brass hinges. With the extra strength of the slide hold­ers and high qual­i­ty con­struc­tion, these view­ers were ide­al for the heav­ier and more frag­ile glass stereo views. The view­er illus­trat­ed holds 50 views.

Negretti and Zambra

The firm of Negret­ti and Zam­bra was found­ed in 1850 when the pair entered into a part­ner­ship pro­duc­ing and sell­ing sci­en­tif­ic and opti­cal instru­ments. Their cat­a­logue was soon to include a large range of stere­o­scopes and stereo­scop­ic acces­sories, the flag­ship of which was the Negret­ti and Zam­bra patent Mag­ic Stere­o­scope.

A view­er which had no few­er than four pairs of lens­es and was sup­plied as view­er only or on a selec­tion of stands. The view­er is of a slid­ing box design and has two top mir­ror flaps and two dif­fer­ent posi­tions for insert­ing a stere­oview. There is a fine qual­i­ty pair of achro­mat­ic lens­es fit­ted to the front lens board, then imme­di­ate­ly behind these are two more pairs of lens­es, one pair turns down into posi­tion from the top of the view­er and the oth­er turns up into posi­tion from the base of the view­er. The fourth pair of lens­es is posi­tioned mid­way with­in the view­er. With the dif­fer­ent slide posi­tions and by using the lens­es in dif­fer­ent con­fig­u­ra­tions this view­er pro­vides dif­fer­ent mag­ni­fi­ca­tion along with the abil­i­ty to com­pen­sate for the dif­fer­ent focal require­ments of long and short sight­ed­ness. How­ev­er, the orig­i­nal patent for an addi­tion­al pair of cor­rec­tive lens­es like one of the inter­nal pairs with­in the Mag­ic Stere­o­scope was grant­ed to George Cooke in 1856. In 1859, the cost of this view­er — depend­ing on the Body only or stand selec­tion you made — var­ied between £5 and £10.10s.

The Magnificent “Hirst and Wood”

The “Rolls Royce” of stere­o­scopes and the pin­na­cle point of any col­lec­tion is for sure Joseph Woods Nat­ur­al Stere­o­scope. It was patent­ed in 1862 by John Hirst (patent agent) and Joseph Wood and was man­u­fac­tured at Birk­by in Huddersfield.

It is uncer­tain how many were made but it was cer­tain­ly not many. Approx­i­mate­ly twen­ty five view­ers can be account­ed for today in muse­ums and pri­vate col­lec­tions. The stands they are mount­ed on do vary and either rep­re­sent an evo­lu­tion cul­mi­nat­ing with the beau­ti­ful­ly ornate carved qua­tre­foil base or were pro­duced to pro­vide a price range. Every view­er is orig­i­nal­ly unique in the carv­ings and com­bi­na­tions to its feet, base plate, legs crest and brass engrav­ing. How­ev­er, there are a few stands that have been pro­duced in more recent times for restora­tion and these appear to repli­cate the stand in the exam­ple illus­trat­ed in the Lon­don Sci­ence Muse­um post card. There are a cou­ple of exam­ples in exis­tence with the elab­o­rate stand that have their brass plate engraved with “G.H. Charlesworth Mak­er”. It is unclear where these fit into the equa­tion. In addi­tion to the elab­o­rate design, the view­er has very high qual­i­ty lens­es and two coloured gauze fil­ter strips, one to the rear and one to the top for pro­vid­ing dif­fer­ent tints / light­ing effects to glass views (rear) and card views (top).

A footnote on the Lenses found in these viewers

Smith Beck and Beck designed and man­u­fac­tured their own view­ers, Joseph Wood also did and there­fore had con­trol over the lens­es used, but many view­ers were man­u­fac­tured and sold by more than one com­pa­ny. The patents they were licensed under were more con­cerned with the actu­al design and “improve­ment” of the view­er. There was no spec­i­fi­ca­tion of lens type. Con­se­quent­ly, there is no uni­for­mi­ty of lens­es even when com­par­ing lens­es in iden­ti­cal view­ers. Achro­mat­ic lens­es hav­ing been man­u­fac­tured from a flint and a crown pre­vent­ed spher­i­cal aber­ra­tion and were far high­er qual­i­ty than sin­gle lens­es. But even well respect­ed man­u­fac­tur­ers / retail­ers pro­duced and sold view­ers with cheap­er sin­gle lens­es. Per­haps this was due to them buy­ing in the view­ers and not man­u­fac­tur­ing them­selves. My own view­er of choice has achro­mat­ic dou­blets with a diopter read­ing of +10.5. I once pur­chased an iden­ti­cal view­er and to my sur­prise and dis­ap­point­ment it was not as good. When I checked, the lens­es were only +9.5. The Knight’s Cos­mora­ma with its dec­o­ra­tive goth­ic lens­es can be found with a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent lens­es. An orig­i­nal bear­ing a Knight’s label had plano / con­vex lens­es with a diopter read­ing of +6.5, one bear­ing a label for Bur­field and Roach had plano / con­vex +5, the exam­ple illus­trat­ed above mount­ed on a stor­age box had con­vex / con­vex +3 / +4 and anoth­er exam­ple had con­vex / con­vex +3/+3. Even the lens­es of the fine qual­i­ty Negret­ti and Zam­bra Mag­ic Stere­o­scope vary from view­er to viewer.

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Paul Burford (Hitchin, United Kingdom)

I first dis­cov­ered 3‑d as a child and use to pop into a W. H. Smiths shop on my way home from school to view the images in the view­mas­ters which were dis­played in pack­ag­ing that allowed you to use them. Many years lat­er I pur­chased a Holmes view­er and some card sets whilst at an auc­tion. I have now been col­lect­ing stere­o­scopes for approx­i­mate­ly twen­ty five years with a focus on 19th cen­tu­ry Eng­lish view­ers I also have a spe­cial inter­est in 19th cen­tu­ry glass stereo views.