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Oliver Wendell Holmes: Inventor of the Stereoscope

Oliver Wendell Holmes was born to Rev. Abiel and Sarah Wendell Holmes in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 29, 1809. He came from an aristocratic and culturally influential line of New Englanders he dubbed the "Boston Brahmins." He graduated from Harvard University at the age of 20, at which time he began writing poetry. He switched his professional focus from law to medicine, and embarked upon a career as a professor and researcher at the medical schools of Harvard and Dartmouth. In 1840, Dr. Holmes married Amelia Lee Jackson, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice. The couple would later have two sons and a daughter, with their eldest son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. becoming an influential Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Although Dr. Holmes would have a second successful career as an acclaimed poet and essayist, with the 1858 compilation of essays The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table becoming a bestseller, his experimentation with the art and science of photography arguably provided him with the greatest personal satisfaction. Dr. Holmes maintained that photography was a transformative instrument that combined past memory with an appearance of contemporary social reality. Intrigued by Professor Charles Wheatstone's invention of the stereoscope (also known as the English stereoscope), Dr. Holmes decided to construct his own variation in 1859. He discussed the trials and tribulations of developing the hand or American stereoscope in his 1859 essay, "The Stereoscope and the Stereograph." Dr. Holmes explained that he sought to create a simple device that could produce complex results. The stereoscope needed two lenses and a supporting frame. He also inserted slots to hold the stereographs in place, and added a grooved, dovetailed stand. Despite Dr. Holmes' considerable enthusiasm for the device, he knew he faced serious obstacles due to the precision it demanded to produce two perfectly matched negatives. He believed that an affordable stereoscope that was marketed by emphasizing its ease of use would appeal to both professional and amateur photographers. Dr. Holmes' faith in the stereoscope was not misplaced, and by the dawn of the twentieth century, it was being used not only by photographers but also by educators, researchers, and medical professionals.

A frequent contributor to the Atlantic Monthly, Dr. Holmes' other photographic essays included "Sun-Painting and Sun-Sculpture" (1861) and "Doings of the Sunbeam" (1863). His passion for photography and his tireless promotion of his beloved American stereoscope never waned. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes died at his Boston home on October 7, 1894. The Miltonian prose that concludes "The Stereoscope and the Stereograph" serves as a fitting epitaph to one of American photography's greatest visionaries:

"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 -'
took a pencil of fire from the hand of the "angel standing in the sun," and placed it in the hands of a mortal."




Ref:
1859 The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. III (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, and Company), pp. 738-748.

1878 Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and his Works (London: Elliot Stock), pp. 11, 23-24.

2013 Fifty Key Writers on Photography (New York: Routledge), pp. 125-128.

1949 Oliver Wendell Holmes – His Pioneer Stereoscope and Later Industry (New York: The Newcomen Society in North America), pp. 10, 15.

1894 The Photographic Journal of America, Vol. XXXI (New York: Edward L. Wilson), pp. 100-103, 557.


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