Object Story: Stereoscope and Stereographs

This week I’ve been doing some more work in the Museum’s photographic store and I came across a stereoscope viewer with a set of 23 stereographs.


Stereographs are two almost identical images taken a few inches apart. When looked at through a stereoscope viewer, a 3D image can be seen. This is similar to how our eyes allow us to see the world in 3D. If you look at your hand with one eye covered, and then the other, you will see your hand move slightly.

A stereograph showing a corridor on board TSS Arcadia. Original photographs taken by W. Ralston Ltd, Glasgow.

The first stereoscope was actually invented before the first photograph. Sir Charles Wheatstone designed a viewer which used drawings to produce a 3D image in 1838, the year before Louis Daguerre announced the first practical process for photographs, the daguerreotype.

Stereoscopes grew in popularity throughout the nineteenth century, particularly after one was presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at the Great Exhibition in 1851. As they were relatively cheap to buy they were used by all classes, for education as well as for entertainment. The use of the sterescope started to decline in the 1930s following the introduction of the motion picture but they continue to be popular as a children’s toy. Google also recently introduced a DIY stereoscope with uses a cardboard viewer together with a smart phone to create a Virtual Reality headset.

Stereolist stereoscope viewer

The stereoscope in our collection was manufactured by Stereolist in England in the 1950s and is made from Bakelite. The accompanying stereographs were taken by W. Ralston Ltd of Glasgow. Founded in 1856, Ralston were a leading industrial and marine photography firm who were often commissioned by the Clyde-based shipbuilding companies. Many of the slides show the interior of the TSS Arcadia, built by John Brown Clydebank in 1953. She was owned by the Peninsular and Orient Steam Navigation Company and operated mainly between Britain and Australia.

A standard cabin on TSS Arcadia. Original photographs taken by W. Ralston Ltd.
The bridge on TSS Arcadia. Original photographs taken by W. Ralston Ltd.
TSS Arcadia’s writing room. Just visible are the carpets which were designed by Templeton’s of Glasgow.

There are also several slides in the set taken at Bulls Metal and Melloid (also known as Bulls Metal and Marine). Based in Yoker, Glasgow, they were particularly known for their ships windows and solid metal propellers.

Inside the Propeller Finishing Shop at Bulls Metal and Melloid. Original photographs by W. Ralston Ltd.
Two propellers at Bulls Metal and Melloid in Yoker, Glasgow.

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