The Brewster Stereoscope – its improvements and variations

Early Stereoscopes, Part 1

written for the stereosite by Paul Burford, United Kingdom

It was the lentic­u­lar stere­o­scope designed by Sir David Brew­ster that became the first com­mer­cial stere­o­scope when stere­oscopy orig­i­nal­ly became pop­u­lar in 1851. The view­er was ini­tial­ly pro­duced in 1849 for Brew­ster by George Low­den. The exam­ples dis­played and pre­sent­ed to Queen Vic­to­ria at the Great Exhi­bi­tion in 1851 were then pro­duced by Louis-Jules Duboscq. But it was pos­si­bly not the first lentic­u­lar stere­o­scope as Sir Charles Wheat­stone had also had a lentic­u­lar view­er pro­duced for him. The rare Wheat­stone view­er illus­trat­ed here is the only design of Wheat­stone lentic­u­lar view­er known.

Sir David Brew­ster with his lentic­u­lar stereoscope
Wheat­stone lentic­u­lar stereoscope

There are also records of Sir Charles Wheat­stone hav­ing pairs of stereo­scop­ic Daguerreo­types made for him as far back as 1841 by Richard Beard and in 1842 by Antoine Claudet and Louis Armand Hip­po­lite Fizeau. With the size of the daguerreo­type pairs you have to ask the ques­tion: Did Wheat­sone view them in his reflect­ing stere­o­scope or in a view­er such as this?

The first Brew­sters had sol­id backs, there was no need for a trans­par­ent ground glass as the  Daguerreo­types that were viewed in them also had sol­id backs. Glass stere­oviews became avail­able in 1852 and with them came the need for light to be admit­ted at the rear of the view­er and so the Brew­ster view­er evolved to hav­ing an open back (this was short lived) or a ground glass window.

Brew­ster Stere­o­scope with sol­id back
Brew­ster stere­o­scope with open back

Antoine Claudet was the first to take out patents on improv­ing the design of the Brew­ster and one of his patents was respon­si­ble for an amend­ed shape where great care was tak­en in the design of the view­er body so that rays of light enter­ing from the open­ing light flap can­not be reflect­ed from the inte­ri­or onto the stereograph.

New vari­a­tions on designs and “improve­ments” appeared such as this hand­some leather ver­sion by The Lon­don Stereo­scop­ic Com­pa­ny. This improve­ment was for inter ocu­lar adjust­ment which was done by part­ing or pulling togeth­er the sep­a­rate bar­rels. It was patent­ed by William Hen­ry Phillips in 1857, the patent also includ­ed ver­sions with thread­ed con­nect­ing rods and knurled winders.

Spe­cial­ly shaped Claudet viewers
Lon­don Stereo­scop­ic Com­pa­ny viewer

Due to the suc­cess of stere­oscopy, fine qual­i­ty view­ers became avail­able like this Brew­ster view­er badged for C. W. Dix­ie on the left and an iden­ti­cal view­er bear­ing a Car­pen­ter and West­ley badge on the right.

Two iden­ti­cal fine qual­i­ty view­ers with dif­fer­ent badges

There were also Brew­ster to suit all pock­ets. This low cost met­al ver­sion was avail­able from the 1864 Negret­ti and Zam­bra cat­a­logue for 3 Shillings and 6 pence. A Brew­ster with a pro­vi­sion for insert­ing a coloured fil­ter behind the lens board was devel­oped to tint and enhance the view.

Low cost met­al viewer
View­er with colour filter

A Brew­ster stere­o­scope mount­ed on a stand could be placed on a table for com­fort­able view­ing. Some stands had quick release cou­plings releas­ing the view­er to be used hand held. The view­er illus­trat­ed here also has an adjustable rear cov­er with a reflec­tive sur­face, allow­ing the user to direct light onto the back of a glass or tis­sue view.

A Brew­ster man­u­fac­tured to the Cooke patent has a small brass thumb screw on the bot­tom right of the lens board. It winds an extra pair of lens­es into posi­tion. Fit­ted with the cor­rect lens­es these view­ers would com­pen­sate for long and short sightedness.

Stand mount­ed view­er with reflec­tive rear cover
Cooke patent view­er with addi­tion­al inter­nal lenses

When George Low­den sug­gest­ed that larg­er lens­es would improve the view­ing expe­ri­ence Sir David Brew­ster was wed to his orig­i­nal design and did­n’t agree but man­u­fac­tur­ers could see the ben­e­fits and the lens­es became larg­er. Brew­ster style view­ers evolved and became longer with a slight­ly larg­er lens board. In most cas­es, it was fit­ted with square prisms cut out of larg­er lenses.

Of course, the improve­ments to stere­o­scopes were also com­bined in one and the same stere­o­scope like the fol­low­ing Brew­ster view­er on an elab­o­rate cast spel­ter stand. It has turned eye pieces and round lens­es, the body shape bel­lows out towards the ground glass win­dow — a design improve­ment by Antoine Claudet. It also has a Sands patent mir­ror door device which is used to open the mir­ror flap and then hold it in the desired posi­tion. The flap is held in posi­tion by means of fric­tion between the wind­ing rod and two brass clasps and ceas­es to work with wear. 

Claudet improved view­er with Sands patent mirror
Mur­ray and Heath view­er with remov­able lens board

Fine qual­i­ty view­ers by Mur­ray and Heath had an unique lens board which slides out for easy cleaning.

Detail of Mur­ray and Heath viewer

Besides tech­ni­cal improve­ments there was also a broad vari­ety of beau­ti­ful elab­o­rate designs like brass dec­o­ra­tion or Brew­sters with lens bar­rels in the style of opera glass­es or binoculars.

Brew­ster view­er with brass decoration
Binoc­u­lar style viewer

Papi­er-mâché Brew­sters, ele­gant and beau­ti­ful­ly dec­o­rat­ed, were mar­ket­ed as “ide­al wed­ding presents”.

Beau­ti­ful­ly dec­o­rat­ed papi­er-mâché viewers

Even the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry hand­held view­ers man­u­fac­tured in France are of a design direct­ly descend­ed from the Brew­ster. The French pre­ferred glass slides over paper cards and devel­oped their own improve­ments like the small­er 45x107 for­mat. View­ers of that size were orig­i­nal­ly intro­duced by Jules Richard but also adopt­ed by oth­ers like Albert Mattey.

Anoth­er improve­ment makes use of mag­ni­fi­ca­tion lens­es and a short­er view­er body. This might also be a French devel­op­ment but it is found among Eng­lish view­ers as well. The greater the mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, the short­er the focal point. While view­ers of this kind do have good mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, they also cut the cor­ners off of the image.

French view­ers for small for­mat glass views
Short bod­ied view­er for magnification

Final­ly, Mat­tey also pro­duced inno­v­a­tive Fold­ing Brew­sters for easy stor­age, with wood­en bod­ies as well as cheap­er card­board mod­els. As far as I know, the Ger­man com­pa­ny ICA and lat­er Zeiss also pro­duced their own Brew­ster versions.

Fold­ing viewers
Fold­ing viewers

The Brew­ster stere­o­scope was with­out doubt the sin­gu­lar most pop­u­lar design of stere­o­scope from 1851 until the 1930’s when new for­mats took over and dur­ing this time its basic design changed very lit­tle. But not long after it first appeared and the inter­est in stere­oscopy grew the mar­ket for view­ers grew like­wise and many oth­er designs of stere­o­scopes appeared includ­ing some very fine British viewers.

Part 2 of the series about Ear­ly Stere­o­scopes will be pub­lished in June 2021.

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.