Le Taxiphote — the most famous French stereo viewer
written for the stereosite by Pascal Martiné, Germany
Jules Richard and the Verascope
Jules Richard took over his father’s precision instrument company in the late 19th century and patented a stereo camera called the Verascope in 1893. The name is derived from the antique Goddess of truth Veritas and the Greek word σκοπός (watcher). This neologism refers to the separation of the camera lenses, which is just about the average human eye spacing.
The camera itself was also a high precision instrument. It was entirely made of metal to prevent humidity and temperature from affecting its operation. But most important, it used a new image format, 45x107mm, which was much smaller than the two common stereo formats of that time – and so was the camera, too.
Despite a widespread interest in stereoscopy, the smaller size was probably the required spark that ignited the boom in amateur stereo photography.
In addition to handheld viewers, Richard also manufactured revolving stereoscopes for glass slides in the new format. These viewers were all simply labeled Stéréoscope, vues prises avec le Verascope (Stereoscope for views taken with the Verascope). Verascope became a synonym for amateur stereo cameras.
Even today, stereo cameras and stereoscopes in the French local advertisements are still titled Verascope and Taxiphote sometimes, even if they were made by other manufacturers.
The revolving stereoscope had one large drawback: changing the slides is extremely annoying and so you would only have access to a limited selection of your photos in the end. And while the Verascope is a high precision device, flipping the glass slide through your field of vision is rather simple and the viewing experience is not as good as with a handheld viewer.
But in 1899 Richard and his technician Louis Colardeau patented a new system that allowed the use of bakelite magazines containing 25 slides each. The dimensions of that stereoscope were the same as the common tabletop viewers, but instead of 50 views, it could hold up to 300 views in drawers underneath the mechanism.
They simply called it Stéréo-Classeur (stereo cabinet), and it was offered in their catalogue in 1900, unspectacularly besides the various revolving stereoscopes. This would change soon after.
I believe that the Stéréo-Classeur was planned as a test run. The viewer was renamed to Taxiphote one or two years later – without any changes of the mechanism. From then on there would be an update or extension of the Taxiphote family every year, widely promoted through advertisements.
If you thought the Taxiphote has anything to do with the vehicle, you’re wrong. The name is again derived from ancient Greek: the first part comes from τᾰ́ξῐς (arrangement/ordering) and the second from φῶς (light). In fact, this is quite close to the former name Stéréo-Classeur.
It’s time to take a closer look.
In most cases, the standard Taxiphote, later called Taxiphote foyer moyen (long focus), consists of a storage base and an upper part housing the mechanism, just like the Stéréo-Classeur before. After placing the magazine on a carrier, a lever on the right operates two metal arms below the carrier that push the individual slides to the ocular level for viewing. These two metal arms need to move very precisely to prevent scratching the neighboring slides. When the slide is brought back into the magazine the carrier is moved backwards so that the metal arms access the next slide. This horizontal movement is connected to a counter on the left side of the Taxiphote. If you hold down the main operating lever you can turn the knob on the counter and navigate directly to a specific slide in the magazine.
The new Verascope slides all had some blank space in between the two single images. This area was commonly used to record information about the stereo photo, like place and date. Another lever on the left of the Taxiphote tilts down an additional lens and mirror system that enables viewing that space with your right eye.
Finally, like all better stereo viewers, the Taxiphote also has adjustable focus.
In addition to viewing photos, a 1902 advertisement tells us about a lantern attachment that could be used for projection over distances of up to 4m. The combination of lantern attachment and Taxiphote resulted in a huge apparatus that allowed only monoscopic, and not stereo, projection. In 1923, the projection unit was substantially reduced in size, and in 1927, anaglyph 3D projection was introduced.
In 1903, an employee of the Richard company wrote to a photography reseller that the Taxiphote would also be available for the 6x13 and 8,5x17 formats. One year later, Richard introduced another new format upon suggestion of the members of the Stéréoclub Français. This 7x13 format was said to be the most rational stereo format for several reasons.
These four formats were continuously produced even though the storage space in the base varied. In most catalogues the names are as follows:
- Taxiphote normal / foyer ordinaire / foyer moyen for 45x107
- Taxiphote no. 1 for 7x13
- Taxiphote no. 1bis for 6x13
- Taxiphote no. 2 for 8,5x17
Also in 1904, Richard patented a new feature for all models. From now on, the two oculars were placed on two wooden plates that allowed interocular adjustment to suit the eye spacing of the individual person.
If the label on your device already bears the Taxiphote name but the interocular distance can’t be changed, then your unit was presumably made between 1900 and 1903.
Le Taxiphote court foyer
It goes without saying that the distance between the lenses and the slide has to be at least the width of a magazine, which is almost 10cm. This is no problem for the larger formats, but when viewing Verascope slides, it feels like you were standing in a dark room with a small window, because large areas of your field of vision are just black space.
This seems to have bothered Richard several years. In my opinion, this was possibly the most challenging task in the development of the Taxiphote. It would take five patented attempts finally resulting in two different solutions.
There were several handheld Richard viewers that had less distance between the slide and the lenses. This court foyer (short focus) provided a superior viewing experience, whereas 45x107 slides still looked just like 6x13. Richard wanted to make that possible for the Taxiphote as well. In 1905, two patents show mechanisms that carried the individual slide both vertically from the magazine to the ocular level, and afterwards also horizontally towards the lenses. A catalogue proves that this so called modèle mécanique was sold in 1909, but it is rarely seen. Probably the mechanism was not perfected yet – this would take a few more years.
The more commonly used method was the so called modèle optique, which took a completely different approach. Instead of a horizontal movement, it used additional block lenses to magnify the photo.
These lenses could be either permanently lowered in front of the oculars or manually by another lever on the left. Using lenses for that purpose leads to some distortion at the edge of the image, but overall, the viewing experience is quite satisfying, especially if you were annoyed by the black space around the image. On the other hand, you had to pay quite a high price, because the stereo photo was cropped. Not much, but sometimes you were going to miss details in the corners.
Starting at 250 francs the average price for a Taxiphote would be around 300 francs. In 1908 Richard introduced a new version only for the Verascope format at a price of 148 francs. The so called Modèle simplifié (simplified model) had a crank operated mechanism instead of a lever, and is very comfortable to use. In fact, you can easily move back and forwards just by turning the crank the other way around.
There was still a counter on the left with another extremely clever improvement. While you need to hold down the lever of the other Taxiphote models to freely navigate through the inserted magazine, you now just needed to push the knob before turning. The crank operating system was probably the key for the further development of the modèle mécanique.
Still, this model was cheap overall. No storage base, no profiled corners, poor construction for reading slide titles, etc. In the cheapest version, the adjustable interocular distance was also missing. The simplified product line was continuously produced though. A 6x13 version appeared in 1926, and in 1931 the wooden body was enlarged for a more comfortable viewing height and a storage base was added.
Meanwhile, an electric lamp attachment clair soleil was patented in 1909 for all formats and the wooden ocular plates were replaced by adjustable eyepieces entirely made of metal, patented in 1911. The latter are a good hint for dating Taxiphotes, because the serial numbers hardly provide reliable information.
Taxiphote court foyer, modèle mécanique – Part 2
Even though the modèle mécanique was already available, it seems likely that Richard changed the mechanism. This is extraordinary especially because the mechanism wasn’t changed in any of the other models, except the addition of new features.
But in 1911, there are two more patents on the modèle mécanique. It seems to me that this new mechanism was introduced another two years later in 1913 because the price suddenly jumped, while the prices for the other models remained the same. Indeed, it’s worth it!
The mechanism is now driven by a crank, just like the modèle simplifié. One turn to lift the slide and another turn to move it towards the oculars. No cropping of the image, no distortion. The viewing experience is fantastic. In my opinion this is really the best Taxiphote ever produced.
It takes also advantage of the push-and-turn mechanism of the simplified model to navigate through the slides. The lens and mirror system for reading the slide title is now lowered by pulling a chain on the left. I think this looks a little weird and unstable compared to the former lever mechanism but it works very well.
Autochromes and the Taxiphote
Because of the success of color photography achieved with Autochrome slides, many manufacturers like Gaumont, Plocq or Hemdé offered special magazines to handle Autochrome slides. This was necessary because Autochromes were developed as direct positives and there was no possibility for inverting the left and right images, except by cutting the glass and switching the positions. Therefore, a second glass was typically added for stabilization and protection because autochromes were extremely prone to humidity. So, the slides were twice as thick as normal slides. This is the reason why different magazines were required.
Richard went a more sophisticated way. Instead of cutting Autochromes he recommended turning the slides upside down (because this switches the left and right images as well!) and then attaching prisms on the oculars to invert the image. These so called Redresseurs became available 1913 as well.
Because Autochromes were expensive and difficult to develop, a stereo photo collection would typically consist of mostly black and white photos, with just a few color images. Switching the Taxiphote from viewing black and white to color thus meant manually exchanging the oculars from time to time. Unfortunately, this would take a few moments each time.
This leads to the last addition for the Taxiphote modèle mécanique: A quick exchange mechanism for the entire eyepiece assembly together with two additional sets in a high-quality leather case. One set for Autochrome lenses, and one set to change the short focus back to the long focus– for whatever reason.
In 1923, additional magnifying lenses were available also for the 6x13 and 7x13 Taxiphotes. These had the same short focus effect as the modèle optique.
As mentioned above there was a smaller design for the projection lantern in 1923 as well as an extension and a redesign of the simplified model in 1926 and 1931. Also, in 1927 anaglyph projection units became available. The 8,5x17 model disappeared in 1930.
But, we can conclude that all important developments were finished by 1915 and all models were in continuous production until the 30’s. With the introduction of the Verascope F40, the era of the multi-slide-viewers ended.
Deluxe versions and furniture
To arouse interest there were also specially designed deluxe versions of the Taxiphote that were not always available according to catalogues.
For those who had larger photo collections, there were storage cabinets especially designed for the Taxiphote and produced by Richard. You could also buy just the drawers and incorporate them into other pieces of furniture to suit your purpose.
The Verascope and the Taxiphote are two halves of an unbelievable stereo development effort that went on for 40 years essentially without any changes. The Taxiphote was exported to and patented in many countries. All this serves as an example of how attractive stereoscopy was at that time, and also confirms the quality of the Taxiphotes as a technical device. We can only guess at the prestige of having a Taxiphote at that time.
But what would better illustrate the meaning of the Taxiphote to its owners than the Autochrome stereo photo Thomas Asch found in one of his devices?
If not otherwise stated all pictures show pieces of my personal collection. I’m thankful that Sébastien Lemagnen from antiq-photo.com provided me with some photos as well as Thomas Asch and Paul Burford.