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.
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.
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.
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.
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.