The Stereoscope and the Stereograph, Part IV: We Will Draw With Our Pencils of Fire



It seems like every gadget in the world can snap photos now; you're almost never without the ability to capture a scene or moment and send it hurtling through the Internet.

But go back to the time when you could first fix images. That's when Oliver Wendell Holmes' wrote this masterpiece: The Stereoscope and The Stereograph. His wide-ranging exposition of the implications of photography and its associated technologies is stunning. We've explored some of the aspects in previous posts in this series like Holmes' precise science writing and fraught times.

Finally, we come to his conclusion. In a sense, he's having an atoms vs. bits kind of realization before there were such terms. "Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable," he writes.

The realization that visual information -- how a building looked -- could travel on its own was as exciting to Holmes in 1859 as it was to Negroponte readers in 1999.

Stereoscopes (and photographs) would be housed in enormous visual libraries and no one would have to travel far to see the treasures of the globe. Holmes foresaw a world in which the image mattered more than the thing itself: "Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth."

(What a gorgeous way to describe what we do now on the Internet (in the BoingBoing or Tumblr sense). It is the reproduction that we want, "the skin," in Holmes' terms.)

Even war will mean more as a series of pictures than as a series of battles. "The lightning of clashing sabres and bayonets may be forced to stereotype itself in a stillness as complete as that of the tumbling tide of Niagara as we see it self-pictured," Holmes said.

And the "pencil of fire" handed down to us by an "angel standing in the sun" is a brilliant metaphor for technology's most general purpose. Our tools let us recreate the world we encounter. We redraw what is with our pencils of fire.

Here's Holmes' conclusion. Enjoy.

There is only one Coliseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed,--representatives of billions of pictures,--since they were erected! Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core. Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth.

The consequence of this will soon be such an enormous collection of forms that they will have to be classified and arranged in vast libraries, as books are now. The time will come when a man who wishes to see any object, natural or artificial, will go to the Imperial, National, or City Stereographic Library and call for its skin or form, as he would for a book at any common library. We do now distinctly propose the creation of a comprehensive and systematic stereographic library, where all men can find the special forms they particularly desire to see as artists, or as scholars, or as mechhnics, or in any other capacity. Already a workman has been travelling about the country with stereographic views of furniture, showing his employer's patterns in this way, and taking orders for them. This is a mere hint of what is coming before long.

The next European war will send us stereographs of battles. It is asserted that a bursting shell can be photographed. The time is perhaps at hand when a flash of light, as sudden and brief as that of the lightning which shows a whirling wheel standing stock still, shall preserve the very instant of the shock of contact of the mighty armies that are even now gathering. The lightning from heaven does actually photograph natural objects on the bodies of those it has just blasted,--so we are told by many witnesses. The lightning of clashing sabres and bayonets may be forced to stereotype itself in a stillness as complete as that of the tumbling tide of Niagara as we see it self-pictured.

We should be led on too far, if we developed our belief as to the transformations to be wrought by this greatest of human triumph over earthly conditions, the divorce of form and substance. Let our readers fill out a blank check on the future as they like,--we give our endorsement to their imaginations beforehand. We are looking into stereoscopes as pretty toys, and wondering over the photograph as a charming novelty; but before another generation has passed away, it will be recognized that a new epoch in the history of human progress dates from the time when He who

never but in uncreated light
Dwelt from eternity--1
took a pencil of fire from the hand of the "angel standing in the sun," and placed it in the hands of a mortal.

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

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

Image: National Media Museum.

1. If you're wondering, this quote is from an old Latin hymn.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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