Monday, February 3, 2014

Historical Perspectives

I recently had a conversation with a friend who wanted to know more about 3-D. This person was shocked when I explained to her that stereo photography has a history going back to the mid-1800s. She had no idea that the stereoscope was the Victorian era’s version of home entertainment, and her jaw dropped when I told her that the Civil War was documented in 3-D. Her reaction didn’t surprise me, as I often find that the general public has very little knowledge of 3-D, its methods, and its history.

I recently had the opportunity to read a portion of an upcoming book on the origins of many inventions. The section that I was able to see was supposed to give the history of “3-D glasses,” which, according to the editors of the book, were invented in 1922 (they referenced a patent that they had found, and didn’t think to look further back in time for earlier usage). I pointed out that while there was a patented process for 3-D motion pictures in 1922, and the patent holders presented the first 3-D feature film Power of Love in anaglyph 3-D that year, 3-D glasses existed long before then. Anaglyph 3-D images were printed in newspapers in the 1890s. The first noted use of anaglyph glasses for 3-D is credited to Louis Ducos du Huaron, who first devised the colored glasses in 1862, and patented them in 1891. The 3-D comic books of the 1950s continued the use of anaglyph glasses., while 3-D movies of the period all utilized linear polarized glasses, made possible by the invention and 1933 patent of polarizing sheet film by Dr. Edwin Land (who founded the Polaroid corporation to manufacture the film). Modern 3-D (which primarily uses circular polarized 3-D) would not be possible without the work done at Polaroid. Active 3-D glasses, which use alternating liquid crystal “shutters” were invented by Lenny Lipton in 1980, and this has also created the underlying technology for digital 3-D projection. Unfortunately, I was too late to get the editors to change the book’s error.

It doesn’t help that the media continually perpetuate falsehoods and myths about stereo. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have read the line “It’s not your grandfather’s red and blue glasses” in various articles about modern digital 3-D, as if polarized glasses are a new innovation. A recent issue of a home theater magazine published an extensive article about 3DTV, and opened with a primer on 3-D of the past, mistakenly stating that “3-D images have been around since the 1890s.” The same article, while correctly stating the use of polaroid vs. anaglyph glasses in theaters, falsely asserts that with the exception of IMAX 3-D starting in the 1990s, stereo was dormant from 1954 until its rebirth with Avatar in 2009.

There are a number of great resources for learning more about the history of 3-D. These include the books written by Ray Zone, the many wonderful historical articles published both in Stereo World, the magazine of the National Stereoscopic Association, and Stereoscopy, the journal of the International Stereoscopic Union, and the 3-D Film Archive website run by archivist Bob Furmanek at, to name just a few. Those fortunate enough to live in the UK and have access to the SKY3D channel were able to watch the excellent documentary Brian May’s Brief History of 3-D when it aired in 2011, but it has yet to be available commercially in the USA.

Sometimes I wish that there was a museum of 3-D, a place that could educate the public on the history of stereo, while also presenting the latest and greatest innovations and content. I guess I’ll just have to start one myself...