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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fine quality viewers by Murray and Heath had an unique lens board which slides out for easy cleaning.
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.
Papier-mâché Brewsters, elegant and beautifully decorated, were marketed as “ideal wedding presents”.
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.
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.
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.