The Stereoscope and the Stereograph, Part III: Things and Ideas

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We've been slowly working through Oliver Wendell Holmes' 1859 feature on photography over the last couple of days. I looked at allegorical readings of the piece and at the beauty of his science writing.

Now, I want to look at a wonderful section of the story in which he uses the stereoscope -- an early "3D" technology -- to pontificate about the nature of the sight. I chose this selection because I think it shows a thread that's run through Atlantic writing on technology from then until today.

We have often tracked how when a new thing comes into our lives, we change in response to it. The thing itself -- the stereoscope in this case -- doesn't have agency. It doesn't change us directly, but through our use of it, we discover new habits of thought or break old ones. Our ideas interact with the thing in complex ways and if we observe closely, sometimes we see new meaning and understanding. That's what James Fallows did in his 1982 piece, "Living With a Computer." That's what Nicholas Carr did in his important 2008 piece, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

And that's what Holmes does here.

He uses the new instrument, the stereoscope, as a tool for thinking about how our eyes see solid things. My favorite line -- and the one you'll want to remember for late-night Tweeting -- is buried in the excerpt, so let me pull it out for you. Holmes is discussing double vision and notes the following: "Again, take two or three glasses more than temperance permits, and you see double," he writes. "The eyes are right enough, probably, but the brain is in trouble, and does not report their telegraphic messages correctly."

Here's the longer excerpt, and the whole story.

A stereoscope is an instrument which makes surfaces look solid. All pictures in which perspective and light and shade are properly managed, have more or less of the effect of solidity; but by this instrument that effect is so heightened as to produce an appearance of reality which cheats the senses with its seeming truth.

There is good reason to believe that the appreciation of solidity by the eye is purely a matter of education. The famous case of a young man who underwent the operation of couching for cataract, related by Cheselden, and a similar one reported in the Appendix to Miiller's Physiology, go to prove that everything is seen only as a superficial extension, until the other senses have taught the eye to recognize depth, or the third dimension, which gives solidity, by converging outlines, distribution of light and shade, change of size, and of the texture of surfaces. Cheselden's patient thought "all objects whatever touched his eyes, as what he felt did his skin." The patient whose case is reported by Muller could not tell the form of a cube held obliquely before his eye from that of a flat piece of pasteboard presenting the same outline. Each of these patients saw only with one eye,--the other being destroyed, in one case, and not restored to sight until long after the first, in the other case. In two months' time Cheselden's patient had learned to know solids; in fact, he argued so logically from light and shade and perspective that he felt of pictures, expecting to find reliefs and depressions, and was surprised to discover that they were flat surfaces. If these patients had suddenly recovered the sight of both eyes, they would probahly have learned to recognize solids more easily and speedily.

We can commonly tell whether an object is solid, readily enough with one eye, but still better with two eyes, and sometimes only by using both. If we look at a square piece of ivory with one eye alone, we cannot tell whether it is a scale of veneer, or the side of a cube, or the base of a pyramid, or the end of a prism. But if we now open the other eye, we shall see one or more of its sides, if it have any, and then know it to be a solid, and what kind of a solid.

We see something with the second eye which we did not see with the first; in other words, the two eyes see different pictures of the same thing, for the obvious reason that they look from points two or three inches apart. By means of these two different views of an object, the mind, as it were, feels round it and gets an idea of its solidity. We clasp an object with our eyes, as with our arms, or with our hands, or with our thumb and finger, and then we know it to be something more than a surface. This, of course, is an illustration of the fact, rather than an explanation of its mechanism.

Though, as we have seen, the two eyes look on two different pictures, we perceive but one picture. The two have run together and become blended in a third, which shows us everything we see in each. But, in order that they should so run together, both the eye and the brain must be in a natural state. Push one eye a little inward with the forefinger, and the image is doubled, or at least confused. Only certain parts of the two retina work harmoniously together, and you have disturbed their natural relations. Again, take two or three glasses more than temperance permits, and you see double; the eyes are right enough, probably, but the brain is in trouble, and does not report their telegraphic messages correctly. These exceptions illustrate the every-day truth, that, when we are in right condition, our two eyes see two somewhat different pictures, which our perception combines to form one picture, representing objects in all their dimensions, and not merely as surfaces.

Now, if we can get two artificial pictures of any given object, one as we should see it with the right eye, the other as we should see it with the left eye, and then, looking at the right picture, and that only, with the right eye, and at the left picture, and that only, with the left eye, contrive some way of making these pictures run together as we have seen our two views of a natural object do, we shall get the sense of solidity that natural objects give us. The arrangement which effects it will be a stereoscope, according to our definition of that instrument.

Read the rest of Holmes' "The Stereoscope and the Stereograph."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.

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