Home Arts & culture Charles Wheatstone: the father of 3D and virtual reality technology

Charles Wheatstone: the father of 3D and virtual reality technology

28 October 2016

Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) was Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King’s. His career began with an interest in acoustics and musical instruments, as the son of a musical instrument maker, and he is most commonly known for pioneering the electric telegraph. However, by the 1830s his attention had turned to stereoscopy. 

Stereoscopy – creating the illusion of 3D from flat images using small changes in angle – preceded the invention of photography. Wheatstone was quick to spot the potential of the new medium, producing the first working model (using line drawings) and coining the term ‘stereoscope’ at a public unveiling at the Royal Society in 1838.

In a lecture given as part of the Arts and Humanities Festival 2016, Dr Brian May, also known for being a guitarist in Queen, and Denis Pellerin, who curates Dr May’s collection of stereoscopic photography, described for the audience, with the assistance of stunning 3D imagery, Wheatstone’s life’s work on the stereoscope and its importance in relation to current innovations in 3D and VR technology. 

From its unveiling, to the ongoing battle for the instrument’s popularity amongst Victorian families, Wheatstone’s stereoscope was developed continually, with fold-able, prototype versions recently discovered by Dr May and Pellerin in the Science Museum’s archives.

The event was organised with the assistance of King’s College Archives, part of Library Services, which holds many of Wheatstone’s original notes and some of his equipment, described by Dr May and Mr Pellerin in their talk, including the originals of 92 pairs of Victorian stereoscopic photographs, which were digitised for the first time for the event, and the mahogany Wheatstone stereoscope as shown above. 

The Wheatstone collection, along with many other valuable historical collections relating to science, technology and medicine, can be consulted by researchers, students and the public in the Archives’ Reading Room in the Strand.

Learn more about the career of Wheatstone in the Archives’ online exhibition.

Interested in innovation at King’s? Visit the innovation web pages.

Image credits: David Tett

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