Revealed: The World’s First ‘3-D’ Film Show (Part 1)

1. Poster for the world’s first ‘stereoscopic’ film show (Lester Smith Collection).

If you have ever regretted that 3-D movies require special glasses when you go to see them at your local cinema, read on. My 1997 book Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures: the Art and Inventions of a Multi-media Pioneer[1] included two chapters about a system of ‘stereoscopic’ (3-D) motion pictures without viewing devices, invented by Theodore Brown. At that time, no public presentations were known, but all that changed with a discovery in 1998 of a poster for the world’s first show of ‘Stereoscopic Living Pictures’. The full story is told here, for the first time, based on intermittent research over the past 35 years. I have omitted mathematical details, and restricted the terminology and description to plain language that does not require technical expertise to understand. In his children’s books Brown called himself ‘Uncle Theo’. I have taken the liberty of referring to him here as ‘Theo’.

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In the Wiltshire city of Salisbury, in December 1903, the local newspaper was glowing in its report of a recent film show, which had been held under the ‘distinguished patronage’ of the great and good of the locality, and with the assistance of local lanternist and photographic dealer Mr Elias Baker.[2]

The results of the REMARKABLE SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERY of MR. THEODORE BROWN will be exhibited and described by the inventor on Monday, November 30.
Absolutely the FIRST PUBLIC EXHIBITION IN THE WORLD of these unique pictorial effects, which will comprehend a series of BRILLIANT PICTURES specially taken by the NEW PROCESS in which NOT ONLY ANIMATION will be shown, but THE MOST WONDERFUL EFFECTS OF NATURAL RELIEF.

The County Hall included a large auditorium, and would shortly become the Palace Theatre, where films would continue to be shown. ‘A String Band Accompaniment’ was arranged for the big day.

This presentation was indeed, so far as we know, the world’s first public screening of motion pictures with ‘stereoscopic effect’. It doesn’t appear in histories of 3-D films, was unknown to researchers until the year 2000, when the surviving poster was displayed in a museum exhibition that Lester Smith and I curated in the inventor’s home town, and has once more sunk into oblivion.[3] So let’s take a look at this pioneering presentation and the ingenious system that made it possible, and the reason for its lack of exploitation despite a development period that spanned some 90 years.

Theo’s first films, and those red and green glasses

Theodore Brown was a stereoscopic photography specialist, journal editor, and cartoonist. It seems likely that shortly before his 1903 book Stereoscopic Phenomena of Light and Sight was published Theo had gained his first practical experience of cinematography. A newspaper profile written many years later recalled: ‘As far back as 1903, he produced cinematograph films…’[4]

His first article on the subject was entitled ‘Animated Stereographs’ in the series From the Inventor’s Notebook, and it’s typical of Theo that possibly his first published thoughts on cinematography should be a description of a method for producing 3-D motion pictures. The proposed device used a triple mirror attachment, with a revolving central mirror reflecting alternate left and right images to alternating frames of film. Theo proposed the use of a synchronised red/green shutter, and suitable viewing glasses, to resolve the projected image into a stereoscopic picture. The film would have run at twice normal speed for the colours to coalesce. In introducing the proposed anaglyph (red-and-green) system, he makes it clear that he is not fully satisfied with a method that required the use of a viewing device:

‘… with the recent improvements and advancements in the cinematograph industry, one would suppose it possible to give to the public stereoscopic effect without involving analytical means of any description. Unfortunately however we have not yet arrived at that stage of perfection, and not until the laws of binocular vision are better understood by physicists, may we expect a practical solution of this complex problem. We may know the nature of light, and understand to some extent the manner of its velocity … but not until such knowledge be supplemented with a clear and complete understanding of its power or influence upon the visual faculties, can we hope to formulate such methods as will give to the mind the sensation of our aim.’[5]

Stereoscopic films without specs

Theo was experimenting with a system for the production and presentation of motion pictures giving a stereoscopic effect, without the necessity for the audience to wear special spectacles. His aim was the projection onto a screen by a single-lens unmodified cine film projector and a specially-prepared film, of an image with an impression of relief. He would eventually name this system, which was based on perception effects not fully explained by the theories of image depth perception of that time, ‘Motional Perspective, or Direct Stereoscopic Projection’. He was to strive for almost 30 years to perfect the apparatus necessary for the widespread commercial application of this unusual technique; and he was not the last to try to make it work.

2. Letter from Theodore Brown to Charles Urban. (Barnes Collection – modern copy, Stephen Herbert Collection).

A letter to Mr Urban

In October 1903 Theo sent Charles Urban, film producer and entrepreneur, a complimentary copy of his book Stereoscopic Phenomena, together with a letter (Fig. 2), which, although brief, is of considerable interest:

Mr Urban
Oct. 16th 1903

Dear Sir,
In reply to your kind letter I hope to send films for your inspection tomorrow. I had 165 feet burnt by accident hence delay. Re Dr. Doyen’s affair [it] is based on the old principle & is worthless in comparison.
Faithfully yrs. Theodore Brown.[6]

Dr Doyen was a famous surgeon in Paris who was working with a conventional (patented) stereoscopic system to produce 3-D records of surgical operations.[7] Urban would have learned of Doyen’s demonstrations through the popular press. An account had appeared in the Daily Mail two days earlier.[8] Urban was evidently aware of Theo’s experiments in stereoscopic motion pictures – perhaps he was even financing them – and had apparently written requesting a sample. The reference to the accidental burning of a film suggests that Theo hadn’t sufficient experience of using inflammable cellulose nitrate film to treat it with the necessary respect.

A ‘new’ perception effect

To understand the background to the principle Theo was working on, we need to go back a number of years. The September 1898 issue of the Optical Magic Lantern Journal contained a letter from a Mr F.A. Howard. He pointed out the differences noticeable when the two halves of a stereoscopic print were individually examined, and continued:

‘… To apply the principle to photography as employed with the cinematograph, if this instrument were placed on the deck of a steamboat skirting the shore and a series of pictures taken during progress it appears feasible to think that with the rapid succession of pictures the system applies, and that when such pictures are projected the result should be a true stereoscopic picture combined with a moving panorama…’[9]

In the following month’s issue of the OMLJ, W.I. Chadwick (author of The Stereoscope Manual, 1891) pointed out that:

‘Mr Howard is quite right about the dissimilarity of the two pictures when viewed by each eye separately, but he forgets that at this particular time, when only one eye is used, there is no stereoscopic relief. It is only when two eyes are used with the slightly different picture on the retina that we see stereoscopic.’[10]


A letter from Theo in the same issue agreed, insisting that:

‘No true stereoscopic effect could possibly be produced in the way indicated by your correspondent, Mr F.A. Howard, who seems to think that two succeeding pictures taken on a cinematographic film, from a moving steamboat, would furnish a pair of views which, when blended together in the scope or by other means, would produce a stereoscopic relief. There is but very slight difference in two succeeding pictures on a film of this kind, and I would say (roughly speaking) that it would be only every twelfth picture that would be taken from a point at a sufficient separation, and the foreground objects such as yachts, would have had time to alter their position, which would be fatal to the result. It must ever be remembered that it is absolutely necessary that the two views composing a stereoscopic slide [e.g. viewcard, or lantern slide], must be taken at the same moment, unless of course the subject is of still life.’

In fact Mr Howard had not suggested that the views be presented as conventional pairs of views in a stereoscope. He had simply pointed out that the film taken as described appeared to have depth when projected. Theo, after suggesting that stereo projection experimenters were trying to run before they could walk, continued:

‘Before readers attempt to produce animated stereoscopic slides [i.e live action films] for the lantern screen,[11] I should recommend them first to solve the problem of adapting binocular vision to the perception of stereoscopic relief from still life subjects projected on a screen, and let them find a system of doing this without the use of any intermediate appliances for the eyes of the audience.’[12]

In the November issue of OMLJ Mr Howard replied to Theo and to Mr Chadwick, thanking them for their replies, but gently insisting that with a film tracking shot ‘under the circumstances stated by me, to me at least a sort of stereoscopic effect is given.’ He went on the suggest the reason for this, but without accounting for the theoretical necessity for each eye to see only its ‘own’ image, concluding: ‘I had the pleasure of seeing some time ago a series of pictures [i.e. a motion picture film] taken under the circumstances I speak of, and to me they had a stereoscopic effect.’[13]

3. Example of basic motional perspective effect.
Hasluck’s Book of Photography (1905)

Theodore experiments

Although Theo’s objections to the suggestion are reasonable, Mr Howard’s insistence that whatever the theoretical position, such effects are in fact perceived, must have intrigued Theo sufficiently to tempt him to make his own investigations. He would then have observed that ‘stereoscopic’ effects are indeed produced from a moving cine camera (a variation of the arrangement shown in Fig. 3, but with the eye – or in this case the camera – moving, rather than the subject), with the additional surprising fact that such effects can be seen when the film is projected on a standard projector, without special viewing arrangements. This effect, frequently the subject of study by experimenters in perception, was noted subsequently by writers in the photographic press. One prominent developmental engineer of cine mechanisms, Arthur S. Newman, remarked on it at a film show given at the Royal Photographic Society in 1928:

‘The scenes … shown emphasised the curiously stereoscopic effect one got on moving the taking point of the camera, especially when different planes of the picture were at the same time included.’

He also made a point that had been understood by Theo in his experimental work:

‘When one was going on straight lines the stereoscopic effect was not pronounced, but directly one went onto a curved line, and when there were several salient points in the different planes of the picture, the stereoscopic effect was very marked.’[14]

4. Theo and shutter experiment (1). (2) is the praxinoscope that he made to demonstrate the effect shown by his system. (Detail of drawing.) ‘A New Law of Nature. A Marvellous Discovery’.
The World’s News (Sydney, N.S.W., Australia) 20 February 1904.

Theo gave an explanation of this motion parallax in a 1905 photographic handbook.[15] So the 1898 correspondence in the OMLJ, and Theo’s subsequent observation of the phenomena in the films of the day, set in motion a train of thought leading to experiments that would result, in May 1903, in the first patent related to this idea:

‘This invention relates to a series of photographs, the function of which is to produce stereoscopic effects when projected upon a screen or otherwise viewed. Each subject depicted is composed of a series of pictures successively dissimilar, being photographs taken from varying viewpoints…’[16]

The aim was to improve on the observed effects of a simple sideways camera tracking (crab) shot, by making an arrangement that would give such depth, but an enhanced version, in any filming situation.

5. Theo’s Blockit stereoscope. This 1905 advertisement states that this device could be used to ‘analyse’ (view) conventional side-by-side stereoscopic lantern slide projections, though this method of projecting conventional stereoscopic image pairs adjacently was rarely used and references in the photographic literature of the time are virtually non-existent. Theo was now abandoning these conventional techniques. From Theo’s Specialities catalogue (Stephen Herbert Collection).

Conventional theory abandoned

To ensure a full understanding of Theo’s proposals relating to ‘motional perspective’ (depth effects produced without special viewing apparatus) it’s important to make clear that this system differs entirely from conventional methods of stereoscopic, or ‘3-D’, image production and presentation. By conventional theory, if a photographic camera (still or cine) takes two sets of pictures, at approximately the same separation as the distance between the human eyes, and these two sets of similar but subtly different pictures are presented in such a way (by the use of viewing devices) that the left eye sees only the left-hand set of pictures, and the right eye sees only the right-hand set of pictures, then a stereoscopic effect will be produced. Theo was now abandoning this ‘true’ stereoscopic arrangement for a system that produced a kind of stereo effect despite presenting both eyes with the same series of pictures. As he explained in the patent:

‘… in the present invention however this idea or appearance [of relief] is produced in another manner, and appears to be due to the effect of the rapid successive exhibition or projection of a series of dissimilar pictures which have been produced as described … taken from sufficiently numerous slightly displaced viewpoints within the limits of displacement of ordinary binocular vision.’[17]

So, not just two ‘extreme’ positions, but a series of pictures taken between the two extremes. He pointed out that such a series, if ‘exhibited to one or both eyes a stereoscopic effect is produced.’

On the right track

Theo had apparently confirmed that sideways tracking shots (a.k.a. ‘crabbing’ shots) taken with a cine camera – such as the shot from a steamboat mentioned by Mr Howard – gave a stereoscopic effect upon projection. Clearly if all the shots of a film were taken while the camera was given a tracking motion (to the left or right of the subject) the result would be a film which showed a depth effect throughout. This would hardly be practicable, however, as a film composed entirely of tracking shots would not be suitable for most subjects. Theo determined by experimentation that only a small number of successive frames (typically 24 or 25) taken during a sideways ‘track’ back-and-forth were necessary to produce a depth effect and with no viewing devices, even if only one eye was used. He further observed that if this short sequence of frames was repeated several times – in effect a series of identical mini-tracks joined together – the depth effect would be maintained. If all the pictures for each mini tracking shot were taken between two points just a few inches apart – approximately the inter-ocular distance – the position of the subject would appear reasonably stationary, although there would be some ‘wobble’ of parts of the image.

6. These are some of the few surviving images from an example of Theodore Brown’s direct stereoscopic filming system. A bust of a young girl, and a statuette of a female nude, are surrounded by vases, with a painting in the background. A label numbered 80 probably denotes the test number. From Theo’s chapter ‘Stereoscopic Photography’ in Hasluck’s Book of Photography (1905).
7. The camera, a Gaumont, for filming static objects placed on a stand or shelf.

Theo proposed three methods of using this principle. In the first he avoided tracking, by moving the subject rather than the camera. Objects were set up on a hinged stand. As the camera crank was turned, the stand was jiggled by a rod connected to the camera mechanism attachment.

8. The stand was oscillated by the camera attachment. Diagram from British Patent No. 10,277 (1903).

‘When a stationary subject … is prepared, a series of pictures composed of the two extreme views … together with a number of intermittent phases [present author’s emphasis], will have been secured.’[18] The result was a method of using a strip of cinematograph film, which could be made into a loop, to project what was in effect a static still-life ‘slide’ with added depth.

9. Travelling camera on a track, for circumscribing a large static subject. Hasluck (1905).

Obviously not all still subjects could be placed on a table or shelf. The second method, for larger still life subjects, was the subject of a further patent, and would give a rotating view of a static subject.[19]

‘When the object is too large to be placed upon an oscillating table, it way be photographed from all view points with a camera travelling on lines which circumscribe the subject. When the camera has travelled entirely round the subject, a large circle of dissimilar phases is secured, and if the beginning of the film is joined to the end, an endless band will be formed, stereoscopic on projection at any point.’[20]

10. For filming ‘live’ moving subjects, the camera was fitted with a different attachment that ‘jiggled’ the whole camera as the filming crank was turned. Hasluck (1905).

The ‘endless band’ was fine for static or revolving views of still life studies but how would it be possible to photograph and reproduce moving – live – subjects, with depth? A third method was needed. For this, the camera itself was made to oscillate, rather than the subject.[21]

Devices were built, a camera set up, and with external financial and technical help, films were made. A report appeared in the Salisbury Times and South Wiltshire Gazette, on 30 October 1903: ‘Stereoscopic Pictures. Remarkable Invention by a Sarumite’ [i.e. a native of Salisbury, referring to Old Sarum, the original settlement that became that city]. ‘Our man had a privileged peep at some of the films.’

11. Bessie, still life with flowers. The Salisbury Times reporter mentioned a film of ‘Mrs Brown arranging flowers’. This sequence is from Theo’s article ‘Direct Stereoscopic Projection’ in The Optician (13 January 1905). He states that this film was of the ‘still life type’ and ‘the lady is absolutely stationary’, indicating that this was one of the short ‘loop’ films that demonstrated stereoscopic effects with a static subject.

‘The process was unfolded before the wondering eyes of the Times man’ who refrained from giving technical details:

‘… the inventor being under arrangement with the editor of Photography to contribute an exhaustive and completely illustrated article to that magazine on November 10th. Mr. R. Child Bayley, the editor in question, at first declared Mr. Brown’s discovery “too good to be true,” but he has been to Salisbury, thoroughly tested the invention, and satisfied himself it does all that Mr. Brown claims for it. Other experts have also been equally surprised and delighted, with the result that numerous calls for lectures have been made on the inventor. … He has already demonstrated privately to scientists, optical instrument makers and others in Paris and London, amongst whom the financial possibilities of the discovery has created a sensation, and put a variety of firms into competition for securing the monopoly of the instruments and pictures. … no fewer than sixteen patents have had to be taken out in several countries in order to protect secrets from infringements.’[22]

After this extensive and glowing puff, it was time for the world to see these Stereoscopic Living Pictures. And Theo’s world was Salisbury.

12. An advertisement by Elias Baker, late 19th or early 20th century. Source not known (photocopy, Stephen Herbert Collection).

With the help of Mr Baker, a local magic lantern exhibitor and friend of the inventor, an ambitious show was arranged at a local lecture theatre hall.

The Salisbury and Wiltshire Journal reported at length:



‘A great deal of interest has been aroused both in photographic and general circles by what has transpired regarding the apparatus invented and patented by Mr. Theodore Brown, of Salisbury, for the improvement of cinematograph pictures. The first public exhibitions that have taken place anywhere of pictures obtained and reproduced by means of Mr. Brown’s invention were witnessed in Salisbury on Monday last, when two entertainments, arranged and carried out by Mr. E. Baker, of Fisherton, were given in the County Hall. There was a fairly good attendance in the afternoon, when the Rev. Precentor Carpenter presided, and introduced Mr. Theodore Brown. At the evening entertainment there was a large audience, which included the Mayor and Mayoress. A good many of the reserved seats were empty, but the other parts of the hall, including the balcony, were crowded.

‘After an overture by the band, Precentor Carpenter made some introductory remarks. He said he supposed that in that audience – which he, for one, was very pleased to see – there would not be many who were present in the afternoon; therefore he thought he had better explain in what way that entertainment differed from ordinary entertainments of this kind. The living pictures which were about to be shown represented a process discovered by one of their townsmen – (applause) – by which he hoped to render them more lifelike than those hitherto seen. He (Canon Carpenter) could not tell them much about the pictures, but he would tell them what he knew. The Precentor then went on to explain the principle of the stereoscope; and, in conclusion, said he was very glad to be there to congratulate Mr. Brown on the results of his invention, and he was also very glad to have anything to do with any entertainment carried out by Mr. Baker.[23]

13. Theo and Bessie in 1902. Provenance, Brown family (modern copy, Stephen Herbert Collection). Portrait of Elias Baker, OMLJ August 1900. Baker, author of ‘How to get, please, and retain an audience’ (in three parts), had experience with auspicious public lantern shows that Theo lacked.[24]

‘At the invitation of Proctor Carpenter, Mr. Theodore Brown addressed the audience. He began by saying that the presence of such an audience was an honour and also a responsibility. Before showing them the results of his labours, he would like them to understand that he made no claim to have reached the highest state of perfection of which the invention admitted. But, on their seeing the pictures, he ventured to hope that their verdict would be such as to justify him in his claim of having made some little advance on the art of lantern photography, as hitherto seen. (Applause.)

14. Floral arrangement stereoview, from Hasluck (1905). This example of a conventional stereoview by Theo suggests the type of ‘arrangement of some floral decorations’ included in this part of the show (Stephen Herbert Collection).

‘The opening pictures were a view of the river at Church Fields, shown in the ordinary way, and the same subject as taken with Mr. Brown’s patent apparatus, showing stereoscopic effects. The first part of the programme also included a picture of the inventor at work in his laboratory; scenes at Stratford-sub-Castle, Redlynch, and Bemerton; boys and girls leaving the Bishop’s School; boating on the Avon; children swinging and riding donkeys; the arrangement of some floral decorations; a boy blowing bubbles, &c.

15. In his workshop plastered with wall charts of optical drawings, Theo stands beside a table on which we see the expected stereoscope and books. Also, a human skull, or facsimile. Perhaps not a memento mori like the anamorphically distorted skull in Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’, more likely an aid to ocular measurement. The World’s News (Sydney, N.S.W., Australia) 20 February 1904 (from Trove, the free online Australian newspaper archive). The Salisbury Times (30 October 1903) reported on a preview, and after praising the Bishop’s School film continued, ‘Even more successful was a film depicting Mr. Brown himself at work in his laboratory. The stereoscopic effect here was wonderfully apparent, all the articles standing out from each other exactly as they appear in reality.’

‘Among the most successful of the pictures were that of Mr. Brown at work in his laboratory, some of the Stratford and Bemerton scenes, the boating on the Avon, and the floral piece.

16. A political cartoon version of “You Dirty Boy!”, Puck, 4 September 1907. The film shown by Theo would perhaps have been the subject made by Robert Paul’s company in 1896. I have suggested in a previous post (Robert Paul, Part 3) that this was based on the very popular Pears Soap advertisement, a statuette and illustration of a grandmother washing a reluctant young boy. Or, since it was shown amongst the stereoscopic subjects, perhaps the version shown in Salisbury was a later remake, using the ‘stereoscopic’ process?

‘After a short interval, the second part was proceeded with. This opened with “You Dirty Boy,” with amusing variations; and then came a very good picture of employés at the Clock Factory leaving work.’[25]

So now we know that Theo was responsible for at least one film in the ‘factory gate’ genre, popular in Britain and started by the Lumières with their Workers Leaving a Factory (1895). The Salisbury Times reported (4 December 1903): ‘a feature about these pictures being that they moved at a less rapid, and therefore more natural pace, than is too often the case in these exhibitions.’ In 1906 the Clock Factory in Salisbury, an important local employer, was destroyed by fire.

17. The ‘comical picture’ “Christmas Waits” shown that day reflected the humour shown in cartoons such as this one, from ‘Black and White; Or, the Phantom Steed!’, Punch 27 December 1890 (see Note 26 below). Very likely this is the Gaumont film Christmas Waits; Or, High Life Below Stairs (1903), directed by Alf Collins.

Christmas Waits were ‘bands of street musicians who formed during the holiday season to play carols around their community in hopes of raising money. The performances were variable and not always appreciated. … From medieval times until the early 19th century, every major British town had a band of waits. Typically they played their loud and penetrating wind instruments at civic occasions but also to wake the townsfolk for work on dark wintry mornings.’[26] Their efforts were not always appreciated. The Salisbury Times (4 December 1903) reported that the film ‘depicted the fate of some very discordant “waits”, whose want of melody was properly illustrated by a sort of go as you please competition among the members of the band.’ Perhaps the live band at the show provided some discordant accompaniment to this subject. The Salisbury and Wiltshire Journal report continued:

‘The Salisbury street scenes that followed had been taken with the ordinary camera without Mr. Brown’s attachment, and therefore did not show stereoscopic effects. Some picturesque views in and around Salisbury were next exhibited; and then came “Bemerton Waters,” the boys of the Choristers’ School playing football, and a comical picture of “Christmas Waits” …

18. Political Favourites, a Robert Paul film featuring Walter Booth. The catalogue code for the film is ‘Fiscal’. This has been dated as January 1904, but was evidently available to Theo in October 1903. It seems unlikely that this film was made using Theo’s process, but it’s possible. Catalogue of Selected Animated Photograph Films, Section B, 1906-7 Robt. W. Paul (CineResources).

… the entertainment concluding with so-called “Fiscal Sketches” in which Mr. Brown appeared as an artist drawing lightning sketches of Mr. Chamberlain, Lord Rosebery, and finally of the King.’[27]

Almost certainly, this is the lost Robert Paul film Political Favourites (1904). This identification of the ‘lightning sketch’ screen artist as Theodore Brown is an error on the part of both local newspaper reporters. The film featured Walter Booth. Frames from the film survive as catalogue illustrations. It isn’t too surprising that both newspaper reports should have got it wrong. Theo was known in Salisbury for his lightning sketches, some featuring ‘Parliament celebrities’. He created these by using his Reflectoscope, a kind of overhead projector: ‘the audience sees the image of a gigantic pen sweeping over the surface of the screen, leaving behind it the lines that quickly develop into a perfect picture.’[28]

The Salisbury Times reported: ‘When Mr. Chamberlain appeared there was a remarkable outburst of hissing and booing, mingled with applause. The sketch of The King met with a more hearty and perfectly unanimous reception.’[29] At that time, statesman Joseph Chamberlain was deeply involved in contentious ‘free trade’ and ‘tariff reform’ activities. Paul’s 1906 catalogue described the production as ‘Suitable for all shades of politics’. The Salisbury and Winchester Journal continued:

‘A couple of songs, “The Lark’s Flight” and “Daffodils a-blowing,” were introduced in the course of the programme, and the band played selections. During the interval, Mr. E. Baker made some remarks. He thanked the audience for the splendid reception given to the entertainment that evening, and went on to refer to the results obtained. He said he counted it a pleasure and an honour to have been enabled to exhibit those pictures for the first time, not only in that city, but in the world; and he hoped to be able to repeat that entertainment, or give a similar one, at no distant date.’

19. Boy blowing bubbles. This was a favourite subject in many media, including postcards and magic lantern slides, for many years. Graystone Bird produced a slide with the title ‘Blowing Bubbles’ in his Studies of Little Children series. This postcard of ‘Master Roby’ described as a child picture star in the Lilywhite Ltd. series of Cinema Stars, was postally used in 1919 (Stephen Herbert Collection). An amateur film of children blowing bubbles, made in 1902-3 in Streatham, South London (which coincidentally would later become Theo’s place of residence) has been made available free online by the BFI.

The Salisbury Times (4 December 1903) mentioned that ‘During the evening songs were pleasantly given by Miss Moore’. This was most likely a member of Bessie Brown’s family. The report also revealed that the films were ‘interspersed with coloured scenes, statuary etc., introduced while the films were being changed’. So lantern slides were also shown. This report also notes that ‘a local impersonation of the famous “Bubbles” picture was good’. This would have been inspired the Millais painting used by Pears Soap in their advertisements. Perhaps Theo obtained some advertising revenue to produce this film, but more likely it was one of the ‘flat’ subjects obtained from a film distributor, and the description ‘local impersonation’ was an assumption by the reporter.

Almost startling

The Salisbury and Winchester Journal concluded:

‘The audience showed themselves very appreciative, and most of the pictures were loudly applauded. As regards the merits of the new process, we can only say that the claims put forward by the inventor were fully justified. These stereoscopic effects undoubtedly represent an advance on the pictures shown by the ordinary cinematograph. It is not improbable, however, that some of the persons who went to the County Hall on Monday expected to see a greater advance than that which was actually beheld; but if any exaggerated expectations were aroused, Mr. Theodore Brown was not to blame for them. He claims that his invention brings out objects in natural relief, and gives depth to the scenes represented, in addition to height and breadth. This is perfectly correct. In the case of the ordinary cinematograph the illusion produced is marred by the flatness of the picture. Pictures obtained by means of Mr. Brown’s apparatus have not this flatness. The difference between them and views taken with the ordinary camera is apparent in landscapes, but is not so striking as in pictures where figures in motion are introduced. These have a very lifelike effect, which is almost startling in the case of moving figures in the foreground. We feel however, that the inventor is right in saying that perfection has not yet been reached.’

The absence of nature’s colouring

‘On pictures from life, though they be taken with the help of Mr. Brown’s apparatus, the cinematograph only gives us black-and-white. Consciously or unconsciously, the spectator is affected by the absence of Nature’s colouring – by the want of greenness in the landscapes, and of flesh tints in the faces. Mr. Theodore Brown is credited with the belief that before long we shall have stereoscopic living pictures in natural colours. If he can find out the means of giving them to the world, he will rank high among the inventors of the Twentieth Century. In the meantime he is to be congratulated on the important improvement which he has made on cinematograph pictures as hitherto presented.’[30]

Theo was still promising colour movies 23 years later, in a 1926 newspaper interview.

Stephen Herbert, June 2021

Comments and corrections welcomed.

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Next time: Revealed: The World’s First ‘3-D’ Film Show (Part 2).

Notes and references

  1. Stephen Herbert, Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures: the Art and Inventions of a Multi-media Pioneer (The Projection Box, 1997). [return to text]
  2. ‘Prominent Men in the Lantern World’, Optical Magic Lantern Journal [OMLJ] 11.135 (August 1900), pp. 101-102. For an outline biography of Baker see the Lucerna Magic Lantern Web Resource. Baker had also been a member of the National Society of Lanternists, a campaigning organisation for social welfare and reform. [return to text]
  3. Exhibition, Magic Pictures: Theodore Brown, Salisbury Inventor. Salisbury Museum, 2000. [return to text]
  4. ‘New Cinematography’, Streatham News 23 April 1926. [return to text]
  5. Theodore Brown, ‘From the inventor’s notebook: chapter I – animated stereographs’, OMLJ 13.152 (November 1902), pp. 18-19. [return to text]
  6. The letter is pasted into a copy of the book which was in the Barnes Collection. [return to text]
  7. Amateur Photographer 29 October 1903. [return to text]
  8. It was widely reported in the British press, 13-17 October, prompted by a report in the Echo de Paris. [return to text]
  9. ‘Correspondence,’ OMLJ 9.112 (September 1898), pp. 139-140. [return to text]
  10. ‘Correspondence,’ OMLJ 9.113 (October 1898), p.156. [return to text]
  11. The terminology of the period can be misleading. Those who, like Theo, came into motion pictures from a lantern background, thought of films as an advanced ‘lantern slide’, which added the dimension of life motion. I think that’s what Theo means here when he uses the term ‘animated stereoscopic slides’. In Theo’s case the problem is further complicated by the fact that he was an inventor and proponent of mechanical glass slides that introduced both movement and – through parallax, by means of more than one layer of glass – some depth effect. [return to text]
  12. ‘Correspondence,’ OMLJ 9.113 (October 1898), p.156. [return to text]
  13. ‘Correspondence,’ OMLJ 9.114 (November 1898), p.171-172. [return to text]
  14. The Photographic Journal, September 1928. [return to text]
  15. Paul N. Hasluck, The Book of Photography (Cassell, 1905) pp. 634, 635. [return to text]
  16. British Patent No. 10,277 (1903). [return to text]
  17. Ibid. [return to text]
  18. ‘The subject is placed upon a stand or shelf, at right angles to which a background is fixed. The background is hinged at the back, and in the centre to some rigid support, such as a post. The background, with its attached shelf, forming a table on which the articles are set up, may thus be oscillated on its vertical hinges like the movement of an ordinary door. The front part of the shelf is connected with a rod extending to the mechanism shown in Fig 854. This illustration shows a Gaumont type of animated picture camera, with Brown’s oscillating mechanism placed at the side. On turning the handle … the camera is operated in the usual manner while the rod, acting on a crank, oscillates the shelf upon which the subject is placed, a complete cycle of dissimilar phases of the subject thus being obtained…’ Hasluck, pp. 635, 636. [return to text]
  19. British Patent No. 13,410 (1903). [return to text]
  20. Hasluck, pp. 636, 637. [return to text]
  21. ‘When the subject is of an animated nature [i.e. moving], it is necessary that the camera should oscillate during its operation. The instrument for securing this is shown in fig. 858. [my Fig. 10]. Film pictures obtained by this apparatus depict the illusion of motion with the additional element of solidity…’ Hasluck, p. 637. [return to text]
  22. Salisbury Times and South Wiltshire Gazette, 30 October 1903. The report states ‘On 24th November he is booked to give a demonstration before the Royal Photographic Society in London’. I have not yet been able to access R. Child Bayley’s periodical Photography, to find out whether Theo’s article, and/or comments by Bayley, appeared. I have been unable to find details of a presentation to the RPS. Roger Child Bayley was author of Modern Magic Lanterns (1890), Photography in Colours (1900) and many other books about photography. [return to text]
  23. Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 5 December 1903. [return to text]
  24. E. Baker, ‘How to get, please, and retain an audience’, OMLJ 4.44 (January 1893), pp. 7-9; 4.45 (February 1893), pp. 32-33; 4.47 (April 1893), pp. 61-63. See also ‘Prominent men in the lantern world: No. XIX, Mr E. Baker’, OMLJ 11.135 (August 1900), pp. 101-102. [return to text]
  25. Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 5 December 1903. [return to text]
  26. ‘Christmas Waits,’ Wiener Museum of Decorative Arts blog entry, 21 December 2017. [return to text]
  27. Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 5 December 1903. For a listing of Robert Paul films, see Ian Christie, Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema (2019). [return to text]
  28. Salisbury Times, 8 February 1901. [return to text]
  29. ‘Living Pictures. Shown with Mr. Theodore Brown’s Improvements’. Salisbury Times and South Wiltshire Gazette, 4 December 1903. [return to text]
  30. Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 5 December 1903. [return to text]


Brown, Theodore. Stereoscopic Phenomena of Light and Sight. (Gutenberg Press, 1903).
Christie, Ian. Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema (University of Chicago, 2019).
Hasluck, Paul N. The Book of Photography: Practical, Theoretic and Applied (Cassell & Co., 1905).
Herbert, Stephen. Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures: The Art and Inventions of a Multi-Media Pioneer (The Projection Box, 1997).
Zone, Ray. Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film 1838-1952 (University Press of Kentucky, 2007).

3 thoughts on “Revealed: The World’s First ‘3-D’ Film Show (Part 1)

  1. Thanks Steve, Hiya Lester.

    Such good stuff there-in. Lots to learn. More historical discoveries await.

    I wonder how much of all this is known by my old friend Lenny Lipton who has just published his latest ‘magnum opus’.

    My own auto stereo viewing experiments with the late Eddie Butts were interesting. I have only once had ‘that magic moment’.

    Time we all met up,

    David Your Seaside been busy?

    David G Burder BSc AIChemE FRPS FBIPP tel 020 8364 0022

    31 The Chine. Grange Park. London N21 2EA


    1. Hi David, I’m reading Lenny Lipton’s book now. Learning a lot, as expected! Over 700 pages, lots of colour, and written by a wise man. (No Theo Brown details from what I’ve read so far, but maybe he’s mentioned in there somewhere.) Good value. ‘The Cinema in Flux’. It would be great to have a meeting some time soon. Yes, the sea front is busy. We tend to stay away during the season, and get a bus to quieter places like Rye Harbour, and enjoy the sea bird varieties and get some walking in.
      Take care, S.


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