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

1. Members of the Brown family pose in front of the stereoscopic film show poster at the exhibition Magic Pictures: Theodore Brown, Salisbury Inventor. Salisbury Museum, 2000. Zoe Long (née Brown), 2nd from left, knew Theo when she was a child. In the 1930s, Theo took a 9.5mm home cine film of Zoe. The exhibition was curated by Stephen Herbert and Lester Smith (photo by Lester Smith).

The principle explained

Following his successful public show, Theo set out his principle of monocular stereoscopy in considerable theoretical detail in The Optician. He explained that conventional stereoscopic photography had apparently overshadowed other possibilities of introducing depth in pictures by taking advantage of little-known facts of depth perception.

‘The principle of the stereoscope is doubtless responsible for the assumption that the only possible way to produce a stereoscopic effect in the mind is to present dissimilar elements simultaneously to the two eyes; and this in such a manner that each shall see only its respective picture … A more exhaustive investigation, however, of the physical and mental functions will reveal the facts of greater possibilities … Hitherto, it seems to have escaped the notice of experimental physicists, that in virtue of the existence of corresponding parts in the two retinae of our eyes, together with the superior retentive power of the mind … we may carry to the mind through a single eye impressions of binocular vision.’[1]

2. Optical toys made by Theo and used to demonstrate the effects of his system. Printed paper photo-frames from a test sequence were arranged in a circle, and the ‘relief’ could be demonstrated. Left, a phenakistiscope (spinning disc) arrangement. ‘Direct Stereoscopic Projection’, The Optician 13 January 1905. Right, a device based on the praxinoscope mirror drum toy, apparently driven by clockwork. From ‘The Oscillatory System of Stereoscopic Projection’, The Optician 24 October 1904.

Theo illustrated optical moving picture spinning ‘toys’ fitted with the necessary sequence of still photographs used to demonstrate the monocular stereoscopic effect. He concluded with a brief description of the arrangement for ‘animated’ (in this context, live-action) films using the principle, and illustrated his oscillating mount for a cine camera. On 15 December 1904, Theo read a paper ‘Direct Stereoscopic Projection’ at a meeting of the Optical Society, published with remarks from the audience in The Optician.[2] This covered much the same ground as the above. The illustrations for these articles included phenakistiscope (spinning, slotted) discs consisting of geometric drawings and photographic series designed to produce the effect of relief, and a praxinoscope mirror drum viewer which gave an improved result.

3. Stereoview of Bessie Kate Brown, taken by Theo as a conventional stereoscopic pair (Stephen Herbert Collection). Many of Theo’s standard stereoview card subjects were taken with his 1890s invention The Stereoscopic Transmitter, a commercially exploited mirror attachment for any ordinary stills camera that enabled stereo views to be taken. Bessie featured in anaglyph red-green Magic Postcards, conventional stereoview pairs used for advertising his products, and motional perspective films.

Film demonstrations

A number of experimental film sequences were shown during the talks, indicating various attempts at reducing the oscillation of objects within the frame. One of these sequences was of Theo’s wife Bessie, whom he had married the previous year.[3] Another showed farm scenes, taken with the assistance of film pioneer R.W. Paul:

‘Mr Paul is making extensive preparations to supply the market, and in view of the fact that, since these pictures were taken, improvements have been made in the patent apparatus, we can promise even better results in the future than as yet have been obtained.’

4. Girls dancing. Illustrated in one report was a short sequence of frames from a film of two young girls in a living room. From the movement of one girl’s skirt, it appears that they are ‘dancing’ on the spot. The Optician, 28 October 1904.

The final projection was of a travelling landscape shot by Pathé, shown to demonstrate the effect of depth in a conventional film taken from a moving camera, due to motion parallax. Theo’s system heightened the effect, and meant that a travelling camera wasn’t necessary. He concluded, perhaps with the hearty applause of the audience at his local show the previous year still echoing softly in his ears:

‘I think we may say that the pictures we have been looking at this evening justify the conclusion that “Direct Stereoscopic Projection” is no longer the dream of inventors, but a tangible and present reality.’[4]

Sea-sickness

From the discussion that followed it is apparent that the audience – which included Henry Hopwood, author of Living Pictures (1899), one of the earliest and most important textbooks on cinematography – was unconvinced. Though impressed by the clarity of Theo’s presentation, the specialists were less than enthusiastic about the imperfections in the screened results.

‘Mr Hopwood said that … in some of the slides [i.e. films] … the oscillation was so marked that, in a sensitive person, it might almost induce a feeling of sea-sickness.’ The Chairman agreed that ‘The oscillation was painfully perceptible, but by fixing the attention to about the spot where the fixed point was in the picture, that seemed to disappear, and you get the relief at once.’[5] It was suggested that audiences should be instructed on how to view the pictures to secure the best effect.

Despite Theo’s assertion that Mr Hopwood had been sitting too close to the screen, it’s clear from reading the comments of the audience that the unavoidable oscillation of parts of the image detracted considerably from any depth-effect obtained, and Theo’s claims for Direct Stereoscopic Projection as a ‘tangible and present reality’ were premature. His enthusiasm for stereoscopy had obviously made him very susceptible to any depth clues in an image, to the exclusion of any detracting side-effects. Reading the audience’s comments and Theo’s conclusions brings to mind modern author/filmmaker Lenny Lipton’s rather unkind but justified observation:

‘Many stereoscopic workers have reached a point where their eye muscles have become very supple, or they have lost the last vestige of objectivity. The films or photographs projected by these enthusiasts are unwatchable by ordinary human beings.’[6]

But perhaps this is too harsh a conclusion, since observers other than the Optical Society’s members seem to have been quite impressed. Theo evidently arranged private viewings, and he published the reactions in a later advertisement.

The Daily Mail reports

‘“Daily Mail” – ‘The inventor has accorded a private demonstration to a representative of the “Daily Mail”. First an ordinary cinematograph picture of a farmyard scene was shown, then the same scene was reproduced by means of the new invention. Whereas in the former the trees, hedges, cows, and farm hands looked flat, although the animated objects moved about, the same features in the stereoscopic cinematograph stood out so bold that a spectator might have been forgiven for attempting to open the farmyard gate or essaying to hide behind the trees. Quite startling was the effect when the cow lifted its head over a hedge behind which one could look.’[7]

The Northern Echo, Wiltshire County Mirror and Illustrated Mail were also apparently impressed, or at least reprinted the Daily Mail’s report. Two notable figures from the world of projection were also quoted praising the results. One of these was R.R. Beard (‘Inventor of the Celebrated Oxygen Gas Regulator’,) and the other R.W. Paul (‘Inventor of the Animatograph’), who had been involved in the venture. Improvements and further demonstrations followed. In February 1905 Theo gave a ‘… full demonstration, from its earlier stages to the more recent productions, which were a decided advance on those shown at the County Hall some months ago … really astonishing.’[8]

Theories of vision

Further related articles appeared in The Optician in 1905. In ‘More About Stereoscopic Phenomena’[9] Theo defended his belief in Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke’s hypothesis that the sensation of solidity was due to the convergence and divergence of the eyes, despite the authority Hermann von Helmholtz discounting the theory.[10]

Craze of the Season

After the Salisbury show, there were no immediate major developments. Theo, financed by his cousin E. Osman Brown, made 3-D red-and-green picture postcards, and other stereoscopic novelties, but sales were poor. Mr Baker the Salisbury lanternist included the stereoscopic films in his local shows for a couple of years.

5. ‘Craze of the Season’ advertisement, from Theo’s 1906 Specialities catalogue (Stephen Herbert Collection).

Theo also advertised lantern slides that gave a stereoscopic effect on the screen, but using the old red-and-green process. His 1906 advertisement mentions the necessary ‘“Reflex” analysers’ – judging from the price, probably cardboard red-green spectacles – but the audience isn’t shown wearing them! This somewhat desperate wishful thinking no doubt reflects Theo’s continuing passion for glasses-free viewing of screen pictures.[11]

Trouble

That same year Theo and Bessie moved to London, where he edited the monthly Optical Lantern and Kinematograph Journal as it transformed into the Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly. However, the financial strain of his earlier commercial activities caught up with him. Orders for products had been left unfulfilled while debts mounted, and his cousin’s investment was lost. In 1907 Theo was declared bankrupt. To go further here into his many activities in the following years would take us too far from our theme, but he never forgot his dream of Stereoscopic Living Pictures.[12]

6. ‘Farminit’ wooden dimensional farmyard toy, 1930s. Playinit Toys series, a Wizardin Product (Prov. Patent). Toys in this series are rare. Another example was the ‘Arkinit’ featuring Noah’s Ark (Stephen Herbert Collection).

Despite his years in London, Theo never forgot his country town upbringing. A farmyard scene, perhaps like the one that had been included in his 1903 stereoscopic film show, was reproduced as a dimensional toy in his 1930s ‘Playinit’ series.

7. Kinemacolor report, Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly: ‘A few of the Latest Appreciations’. Heading for a series of advertisements (Stephen Herbert Collection), and Kinemacolor advertisement, 7 April 1910.

Kinemacolor

In 1909 Charles Urban introduced Kinemacolor at the Scala Theatre, London. This was a natural colour film system but with limitations, and played at special venues for a few years before encountering legal, financial and other problems, not least the First World War. In his description of the process, in his role as a reviewer in the Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly, Theo praised not only the colour, but also the ‘dimensional’ effects:

‘The flower subjects created the most pleasing effect in my mind. I thought whilst gazing at these wonderful productions, it is well that these displays have not been called pictures; they are not pictures, but realities, in so far as they provide all that the originals in nature provide – namely, the stimulus peculiar to colour, form, and binocular solidity.’[13]

Again he passionately insisted: ‘… these are not pictures, but realities’. The technical process of Kinemacolor had some aspects in common with Theo’s ‘motional perspective’ system, and being attuned to depth perception clues he had observed these in some of the Kinemacolor subjects, most likely those with revolving subjects or ‘crab’ shots. This effect was not an intention of the inventor G.A. Smith.

Hepworth 1909

Practical use of the basic tracking effect originally noticed by Mr Howard in 1903, and requiring no special camera arrangements, was used in a long series of occasional short films entitled Stereo Scenics, produced by Cecil Hepworth from 1909 until c.1920. Burnham Beeches (1909) is available on YouTube.[14]

8. The Stereo Photo Co. advertisement, Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly 22 August 1912. The text mentions Stereo Picture Co., but the ‘company’ name in the address is The Stereo Photo Co. That this is Theo’s advertisement is clear from the old Daily Mail review of the effect quoted in the ad, and the Brixton address.

‘Dancing’ – a film goes on sale

A joint British Patent application with Henry Williamson (no. 16,355 of 1910), ‘Improvements in and relating to the presentation of cinematographic pictures so as to produce a stereoscopic effect’, suggests more developments by Theo as the years went by. Then in 1912, an advertisement (Fig. 8) appeared in the Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly:

‘IT HAS ARRIVED! The film that gives stereoscopic body effect. After many years of patient experiment the Stereo Picture Co. beg to announce that they are now in a position to supply at once their latest achievement – “Dancing”, a charming subject, technically perfect, and embodying their remarkable invention of Kinematograph Pictures with Body. The production is superior to anything hitherto obtained surpassing in excellence earlier productions…”

An illustrated booklet explaining the process, and the 65-foot film, was priced at £1 5s. (equivalent to about £150 at 2021 prices) Perhaps this was the subject filmed back in 1903/4 (see Fig. 23), or a remake. It did not spark a stereo film revolution.

9. Theo films one of the Kinoplastikon scenes on the roof of the Scala Theatre. The gramophone can just be seen, obscured by Theo and tripod, and behind that a pianist in straw boater, playing. This suggests that the singing voices only were on the pre-recorded Hepworth Vivaphone disc being played back, and the musical accompaniment was live during the shooting, and live during the presentation. From ‘The New Art of the New Theatre’, The World’s Work Vol. 22, p. 298 (W. Heinemann, 1913).

Kinoplastikon

At that time Theo was deeply involved in a process known as Kinoplastikon, a German invention that he patented in Britain by agreement, which was presented to the public at the Scala Theatre in London in 1913. It was a ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ arrangement but incorporating motion picture characters. ‘Spectral’ actors recorded on film interacted with a solid stage set. The Bioscope reported:

‘Kinoplastikon produces a stereoscopic effect, because the figures in its films stand in the middle of an ordinary stage, and thus really have space before and behind them. In themselves, however, they are not stereoscopic, a fact which was observable in the last film shown, where a woman stood in front of several other people, the latter appearing unnaturally small and out of perspective, as is the case in an ordinary photograph.’[15]

The new optical wonder, which was seriously limited in its potential applications and required a very significant and expensive arrangement for production and especially staging, appeared under the patronage of Charles Urban. It had one season of popularity.

Plastoscopes

Aware of the huge handicap of the large glass sheet needed for Kinoplastikon, Theo next invented yet another unique system: Plastoscopes, or Kineplastoscenes, patented 1918-19. This hybrid arrangement involved creating film sequences with the background blacked out, and a slide giving the background image. Or alternatively, sections of each frame on the film could be coloured differently – people etc. green, backgrounds red. Either way, the result was projected onto a semi-transparent green gauze screen, which was suspended in front of a red background. The green gauze would reflect the green figures – the green rays that passed through the gauze being absorbed by red background – and the red sections would appear only on the red background behind. One could then choose to focus on either the foreground figures in motion, or the background, the result being a depth effect. No glasses were required, but clearly the arrangement was very limited in its potential uses. Demonstrations were given, but it was not taken up.

10. Will Day (bottom left) and Theodore Brown (top right), in 1926. ‘Cinema Veterans Revive Past Memories. Annual Reunion in London.’ The Bioscope, 16 December 1926.

Brown later attended, with industry stalwart and historian Will Day, a commercial screening in London of a system called ‘Plastic Films’ – only to discover that they were using an inferior version of his system, the patent having expired. Following press reports, an angry Mr Day wrote to The Bioscope:

‘Why every foreigner that comes here and shows these effects, which are certainly not new, should receive the acclamation of the public and the money for exhibiting a so-called [new] process, seems remarkable to me, when the whole scheme had been done before … Mr Brown demonstrated this whole idea in a far better manner at the King’s Hall, Shepherd’s Bush, during the month of March 1920, and the effect produced was a long way ahead of that witnessed this day at the London Coliseum … there is nothing original in this invention and the same idea was originally patented by Mr Theodore Brown an Englishman. W. Day. August 13, 1925’.[16]

11. Cartoon of Robert Paul (detail), artist unknown. From a montage of caricature cartoons surrounding the text in ‘The Veterans Foregather’, the report of a 1924 dinner event organised by Paul. Kinematograph Weekly, 18 December 1924.

How soon we forget

Theo’s early experiments with his motional perspective were often forgotten. One who remembered was Robert Paul, after a 1924 Royal Photographic Society lecture by cameraman Leslie Everleigh:

‘When Mr. Paul had congratulated the lecturer … [he] went on to remind us that a trick effect still much tried after but never yet secured, was the effect of solidity in the kinematograph picture. He mentioned that Theodore Brown had, as long ago as about the year 1901, realised that at least a semi-stereoscopic effect should be created by taking films from a moving viewpoint, and had even built a camera which oscillated from side to side upon its tripod top as it worked, in the hope that thereby a commercial solution of the problem of filming in relief might be arrived at.’[17]

I wonder whether Paul knew that Theo was then still striving, after all those years, in his Streatham workshop.

12. Cartoon of Theodore Brown in his former role as editor (detail), ‘The Veterans Foregather’, Kinematograph Weekly, 18 December 1924, artist unknown.

After the lack of commercial success with Dancing, Theo continued working behind the scenes on improvements to his method. Another fifteen years passed. A Kinematograph Weekly editorial item in October 1925 reflected:

‘How many present-day readers can remember the days when the Kinematograph Weekly was the Optical Lantern Journal, and when the name of its editor was Theodore Brown? Probably only a chosen few can carry their minds to those days, but many more will know Mr. Brown’s name as an ardent experimenter in stereoscopy and kine-stereoscopy … Mr. Brown invented the pioneer camera embodying the movement viewpoint idea as a means of plastic motion picture photography, a system afterwards attempted, though with sparse success, by such inventors as William Friese-Greene and Kasimir Proszinski. To-day Mr. Brown is still as busy as ever with inventions in his Streatham laboratory. Nonetheless I am hopeful to be able to print at no distant date and article from his pen dealing with kine-stereoscopy, its past, present, and future. … opinions of those who have put into a subject long hours of work are always worth studying.’[18]

In ‘An Illusion Attained’, 11 March 1926, Theo wrote of his own original system, that ‘a great many … arrangements were tried, but the final results were not such as to justify further experiments along this particular line of action’. He went on to give interesting details about Kinoplastikon, including the fact that

‘I photographed one of the subjects with the oscillating camera device mentioned in an earlier article. The camera was made to keep its axis centred throughout upon the subject, in addition to its panoramic recurrent action, resulting in what may be termed a modelling of the subject. And, as the subject only [the person/people, with black background] (without surrounding objects) was received upon the film, the defect of fixed objects swaying … was absent, the actual stage properties being, of course, stationary.’

Then there were hints in the photographic press that other experimenters were either familiar with Theo’s work, or had come to similar conclusions. A report of a 1926 Royal Photographic Society meeting, at which prominent cine engineer Arthur S. Newman gave full details of motion parallax and discussed ‘monocular stereoscopy’, concluded:

‘With certain arrangements for moving the camera slightly during the exposure of a length of film, Mr Newman was sure that quite a new style of projection picture could be produced in which the stereoscopic effect would be considerably enhanced.’

In the discussion which followed, Mr W B Ferguson:

‘… asked whether the device had ever been tried of imparting to the camera an equivalent movement, backwards and forwards, which should give the effect of stereoscopic relief. Mr Newman said that there had been experiments in which the camera had been put on a stand and moved along steadily. He did not know whether a camera had ever been adapted to move from side to side except accidentally on shaky stands.’[19]

It’s difficult to understand how Newman, a very informed cine engineer active in the industry from the late 1890s, could have been unaware of Theo’s talks and demonstrations of 1903-05 and subsequent experimenting, but I believe his statement in 1926 was honest. How soon we forget.

A final attempt

Despite Theo’s 1926 assertion that ‘the final results were not such as to justify further experiments’, his developments did in fact continue. Almost certainly he was considerably in advance of any other worker in this field. With his original arrangement, back in 1903, stereopsis of a kind had been achieved but as we have seen the impression had been seriously marred by the unacceptable degree of oscillation of parts of the image due to the varying viewpoint of the travelling camera. The image had depth, and improvements had been made, but subjects still vibrated. Agitated trees, walls, and people needed to be calmed.

Theo addressed the problem in a Patent Application of 31 May 1927: ‘This motion of images, the originals of which are known to be fixed in nature, is detrimental to the best results …’ It would seem to have been an insurmountable obstacle, since reducing the travelling distance of the camera in order to reduce oscillation in the image would reduce the stereoscopic effect. Theo claimed to have discovered a way round this problem: ‘… to over come this defect, I employ means to render such changes of position unnoticeable, such means consisting of a supplementary process of focal accommodation.’[20]

A solution, but another snag

He apparently theorised, or had determined empirically, that continually changing the point of focus of the subject being filmed diminished or eliminated the effect of oscillation. A means for continually changing the focus with successive exposures could be arranged mechanically, but led to a further problem. When an object was out of focus, the blurred image occupied a larger area than when it was sharp. This continuous change of the image size created a pulsating effect of the object approaching and receding from the viewer. In order to cure this defect, it was necessary to arrange for the camera to track away from the object slightly as it went out of focus, in order that the blurred image would be the same size as the sharp image. Again, a mechanical device for producing this movement could be arranged. As an alternative to moving the camera backwards and forwards, two mirrors, one oscillating, could be used to provide the same compensation optically.

13. Letter from Thomas Bedding to Ivor Montagu. Provenance unknown (photocopy, Stephen Herbert Collection).

An old friend becomes involved

In April 1927 Thomas Bedding, a former editor of the British Journal of Photography before he spent 20 years in America, joined Theo in his attempts to finance the venture.[21] On 6 May he wrote to the influential and wealthy English film producer and critic Ivor Montagu explaining his involvement, and asking to see him ‘with a view to discussing the possible financial interest you might be disposed to take …’[22] The outcome is not known, but a trade preview was about to take place.

Theodore Brown’s Quest for Third Dimension …

… was the sub-heading of a June 1927 report of a special trade preview at ‘the American Company’s theatre, three films being run through an ordinary projector, and thrown on the usual screen without any previous preparation whatever’. The subjects were unexciting. Two were still life views, and the third ‘a girl writing’. The writer reported ‘bold relief’ but also stated ‘as a first demonstration, Mr Brown has proceeded a long way towards a solution’. After 25 years this was still being seen as ‘a first demonstration’. His opinion was that further progress was necessary: ‘… the apparatus is now in process of refinement and improvement.’[23]

The last patents

These various developments, and further refinements, were outlined in a series of three Provisional Patent Applications, culminating in a Complete Specification of 28 February 1928.[24] Four months later, Theo applied for another patent relating to the same development; this time, with a co-patentee, Christopher Price Williams of Wrexham, North Wales.[25] For this final version Theo had decided that the camera should travel on an elliptical path.

14. Patent drawing, the final camera design. British Patent No. 319,406, completed 23 September 1929. These new and more complex arrangements would have required considerable expense in having the mechanical parts constructed, as the task would almost certainly have been too much for Theo’s skills and facilities.

‘… the focal adjustment of the lens of the camera and the aperture … may be changed automatically to a predetermined extent and a predetermined number of times, during the process of taking the various pictures throughout the complete cycle of movements.’[26]

The complex gearing of the camera mounting (Fig. 14) is illustrated in the patent, which also shows how sprung levers, controlled by moving cords, continually altered focus and aperture during operation. The patent goes into considerable technical detail concerning the mechanical arrangement of the apparatus, the result of years of experimentation and development.

15. Everyone’s, 12 December 1928. Newspaper clipping, provenance Brian Coe (copy, Stephen Herbert Collection).

A secret demonstration

The Australian film exhibition trade journal Everyone’s printed a 1928 news item entitled ‘New Camera Device May Alter Production Methods’, claiming that films made using Theo’s improved system had been ‘… secretly demonstrated at a West End cinema’. Despite the reported comments of ‘A well known London exhibitor’ – ‘It is so real you would think people are going to walk or tumble out of the picture …’ , news of this new and expensive technical complication – ‘a camera attachment … said to cost in the vicinity of £100’ – would not have been greeted with enthusiasm by an industry in the throes of a talkie revolution, and new colour developments.[27]

3-D movie specialist Ray Zone has written:

‘Tirelessly promoting this form of monocular stereo and despite discouragement from his peers, who were less than enthusiastic about the visual effects, Brown continued to work with motional perspective techniques for many years.’[28]

Just as the previous generation of inventors – Marey, LePrince, Donisthorpe and Crofts, Friese-Greene – had struggled with obtaining a steady screen image for their innovative motion pictures, Theo tinkered away through intermittent funding and dashed hopes, and time passed and finally the vision faded. I am reminded of Joseph Losey’s description of the work of American animator Charley Bowers, ‘His method was a terrible and endless labor’.[29]

16. Theo and Bessie arrive at a family wedding, c.1931. Theo talks with fellow guests. Images from a 16mm home movie
(Brown family).

I once got a peep at Theo in a family home movie made around 1931. By that time he was the inventor of the fully-dimensional pop-up book, responsible for paper-engineering many ingenious and commercially successful pop-up pictures, which must have supported the Browns through otherwise lean times in the 1930s. The first series of children’s books was for the Daily Express, from 1929, patented in the joint names of publisher/editor Louis Giraud and Theodore Brown. Theo also painted the final artwork for many of the printed designs. Giraud then dropped the Daily Express books and published many volumes of Bookano Stories, with Theo’s pop-up pictures.[30]

17. Pop-up flower picture, Bookano Stories No. 1 (Stephen Herbert Collection).

One of these was an impressive model of a flower, paper-engineered and painted by Theo. A floral display had been the subject for one of his early anaglyph 3-D postcards. Another was shown at his Salisbury premiere in 1903 as a tentative projected stereoscopic image, then he enthused about the wonder of the Kinoplastikon flower studies (‘realities, not pictures’), and ‘still life views’ were projected at his last known trade preview in 1927. Now the flower had finally become a solid dimensional object – not reliant on viewing devices, with no frustrating image wobble, visible from all angles, and in glorious colour. In addition, it incorporated movement that was entirely under the control of the book’s user. Open the page and the orchid blooms, spreading its leaves and petals.[31] A butterfly rests on the pistil; trembling, but intentionally so. Theo had finally achieved his goal, the lifelike representation of nature. These representations were now indeed dimensional realities, not simply pictures.[32]

Nothing further is known of Theo’s stereoscopic film activities. He died in 1938 in Maudsley Hospital, London, as a result of arterosclerosis. Bessie was there at the end.

Chasing the wrong dream?

Theodore Brown investigated the physiology and psychology of motion and depth perception in perhaps greater detail than any of the other motion picture experimenters of his day. Although his mathematical skills were almost certainly limited, his observational skills were advanced. His understanding allowed him to expostulate on who, in the field of professional scientific observers, was right and who was wrong. Whether his views on perception were entirely correct I am not qualified to say (I am inclined to think not), but his empirical experience certainly meant that he had a chance of succeeding, in terms of technical arrangements, with a practical motion picture system with depth. Perhaps his mistake was in chasing the elusive Holy Grail of a cinema system without need of viewing aids, or even a special projector.

Over the decades some have managed to make systems that dispensed with viewing aids, but the problem has not yet been fully resolved. Even if Theo had cracked the main problem, a tremor of the images, it might not have signalled a success that could immediately be exploited commercially. In their 1953 book The Theory of Stereoscopic Transmission and its Application to the Motion Picture, Raymond and Nigel Spottiswoode list, in the form of questions, some 20 considerations that have to be dealt with when filming and projecting in conventional stereo, each one a complex field of study. Many of these technicalities would not have been avoided with Theo’s motional perspective arrangement. The Spottiswoodes wrote:

‘In the early stages of a development such as this, an independent inventor will work with tireless persistence on an idea which a highly trained engineer employed by a large corporation might long ago have abandoned as hopeless. This is a source at once of strength and weakness. It enables him to concentrate all his imaginative energy, often over a space of years, on a single scientific deadlock, which he may in the end decisively break down, thus carrying all the rest of the system along with him. On the other hand he may arrive at no more than a partial solution, whereupon his disregard of all other problems will seriously imperil his position. Partly successful inventors in new fields usually end in total failure.’[33]

The successful achievement of what Theo was seeking might simply never be possible. If he had chosen another path, perhaps ‘simply’ perfecting the conventional arrangements for stereoscopic films, he might have succeeded in making a commercially viable product. Instead, he chased his dream. But his efforts and energy were spread through too many fields, his resources limited and intermittent, and his business sense questionable at best. I am very aware though that from the distance of more than a century, it is easy for us to judge.

A new old idea

My first exposure to the idea of a novel ‘depth effect’ film system was in 1971, when the legendary technician of 8mm film projector lamp conversions, Harold ‘The Light’ Bailey, confided in me his most recent project: a new system for 3-D filming and viewing that didn’t need viewing specs or special projectors. I had great faith in Harold’s abilities, but I must confess that on this occasion I was a bit nonplussed by the suggestion, as he had turned up that day wearing an eye patch over his left eye due to an illness or injury.[34] I gently broached the subject. ‘That’s the whole point!’ he told me. ‘My system works with two eyes, or with one eye, makes no difference.’ He continued by describing the effect of tests he had shot of trees in his local woods. Results were wobbly but promising. But further details were secret. Harold tapped his nose and winked with his good eye. I heard no more about it.

18. Posters for classic 3-D films (online source, 3dfilmarchive.com)

From classic 3-D to ‘no glasses’?

While I was writing my book about Theodore Brown, in the late 1980s and early ’90s, I was fascinated by Theo’s attempts at stereoscopic filming. I was at that time responsible for the technical presentation of 3-D films from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, in many different systems, some that required two synchronised projectors. These included coaxing through the machines tired or ragged original 1950s prints of Festival of Britain and Coronation shorts, what was billed as the ‘last showing’ of a worn-out print of Kiss Me Kate (1953), a new print of Hitchock’s restored Dial M for Murder (1954) that hadn’t originally been widely distributed in 3-D,[35] The Bubble (1966) in 4-D Space-Vision (amazing protruding effects, and a mirror arrangement on the single projector), Flesh for Frankenstein (1973), and many others, mostly from the 1950s 3-D boom. All of these, requiring electronically synchronised 35mm film projectors or finicky projection beam-splitters of at least two different types, were recipes for potential disaster. And of course there were the additional headaches of distributing and collecting 3-D spectacles that dimmed the image – polarised, not the gimmicky red-green specs that people remember from later re-releases of ’50s classics – and the requirement of a silver projection screen.

19. Aspex. This system, which could be shown with an ordinary projector, required spectacles, but if they were not used the film could still be viewed ‘flat’ without too much evident fringing. Publicity brochure 1991 (Stephen Herbert Collection).

So I was very interested in the possibilities of simple systems that required only a standard 35mm cinema projector and no special skills on the part of the projectionist. I was marginally involved in the demonstration of several systems that were current or being developed. One was called Aspex, and gave a ‘full colour’ image taken with a special camera shutter, which would resolve into a 3-D image when red-blue spectacles were worn. Moving-camera shots gave what has been described as “2½-D”, but the picture became flat when the action stopped. Another arrangement used a simpler version of the Pulfricht effect, where the audience wore what was basically a pair of tinted sunglasses with one lens removed, and the camera had to be kept crabbing (sideways tracking) throughout shooting. The slight temporal lag to the brain of the darker image, compared with the no-lens eye, was translated in the brain into depth effect. It was not unrelated to Theo’s attempts. It sort-of worked, but the camera tracking requirement seriously limited its usefulness. Good for some sports films but not much else.

20. Vision III logo, 1991.

Then, in 1991, I was sent a three-minute 35mm demonstration film that used essentially the same technique as Theodore Brown’s system, but the images were oscillated up-and-down rather than side-to-side, using the oscillating mirror that Theo had proposed as an alternative option to the whole camera being jiggled. From what I could judge, not having seen Theo’s films, the perceptual effect of Vision III was similar. The requirements were also the same, and attractive. No viewing glasses, no projector attachments, no silver screen. The American company developing this new system was showing it to potential investors and planned a 20-minute action film. The vertical mirror movement was easier to arrange and the ‘wobbling’ was found to be less intrusive than with Theo’s horizontal arrangement, and I thought perhaps their version had some potential for special presentations. Like Theo and the journalist who wrote about his 1903 public show, I was quite impressed but thought perhaps it ‘needed work’. However, with the informed hindsight of 60 years I considered it unlikely that further improvements could be made. Demonstrations were arranged for UK-based clients, who were somewhat intrigued, and might have been tempted to investigate further. I wrote to the President of the company, giving details of Theo’s early experiments along the same lines, and he replied: ‘Thank you for sending me the paper by Theodore Brown. [I] plan to cite it in my next SMPTE paper … Mr Brown was quite ahead of his time’.[36]

The company eventually changed, I believe, to a system that used polarised spectacles but incorporated the subtle effects of ‘motional perspective’. It was suitable for both film and video, and I think they may have had success with that, but the problem of the glasses remains.[37]

The end?

So the idea of commercially exploiting ‘stereoscopic’ films based on the effect originally developed by Theo was finally(?) abandoned 90 years after it was first proposed – another one of those magnificent failures that are so interesting.

Except that … when I communicated with the Vision III people 30 years ago, I hadn’t quite got my head around the final complex 1920s developments of Theo’s system, set out in dense technical descriptions, or indeed fully understood Vision III’s advanced techniques. Maybe Theo’s last refinements really did cure the ‘wobble’ and are only waiting to be rediscovered almost a century after he abandoned them. And if Vision III had stayed with a no-glasses-necessary version of their development, could they have finally made the breakthrough to the market? No repeat of ‘A Lion in Your Lap’, but a subtle impression of the dimensions that we experience in everyday life. Perhaps one day an electronic version will, finally, take over the film and television industries and Theo’s decades-long dream – stereoscopic moving pictures without special viewing requirements, and without that annoying tremor – will be realized. What do you think? Comments and corrections below.

Stephen Herbert, June 2021

Acknowledgments

Since I first contacted the Brown family, two generations have passed. They helped me so much in the 1980s and ’90s, especially Mattie and Zoe, who knew Theo and Bessie in the 1930s and remembered them with affection. This account is dedicated to their memory. Thanks are also due to Mo Heard, Lester Smith, David Burder FRPS, Stephen Bottomore, the late Brian Coe, and everyone else who has provided information and material over the years. I am also indebted to the many online resources – including the Library of Congress, The Internet Archive, Ciné-Ressources and the Cinématheque française, Gallica (France), Trove (Australia), the British Film Institute, and the British Library Newspaper Archive – that make research so much easier than it once was. There’s more to learn about the ingenious Theodore Brown, and the indefatigably supportive Bessie, and we shall be revisiting them before too long.

Thanks also to the staff of our technical and editing department, for their continued essential support.

Next time: The Dickens Daguerreotypes: Part One

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Appendix: Films shown on 30 November 1903 at the County Hall, Salisbury, Wiltshire.

The term ‘stereo’ here refers to Theo’s ‘stereoscopic’ system (motional perspective) being used. Scenes such as those listed as No. 4 might have been separately shown.

  1. View of the river at Church Fields. Flat.
  2. View of the river at Church Fields. Stereo.
  3. The inventor at work in his laboratory. Stereo.
  4. Scenes at Stratford-sub-Castle, Redlynch [definitely Stereo], and Bemerton, Haymakers returning, A Gypsy encampment. Probably all stereo.
  5. Boys and girls leaving the Bishop’s School. Stereo.
  6. Boating on the Avon. Probably stereo.
  7. Children swinging and riding donkeys. Probably stereo.
  8. The arrangement of some floral decorations. Stereo.
  9. A boy blowing bubbles, &c. Not known.
  10. “You Dirty Boy!” Probably flat.
  11. Clock factory employés leaving work. Probably stereo.
  12. Salisbury Street Scenes. Flat.
  13. Picturesque views in and around Salisbury. Probably stereo.
  14. Bemerton Waters. Probably stereo.
  15. The boys of the Choristers’ School playing football. Probably stereo.
  16. Christmas Waits. Probably flat.
  17. Fiscal Sketches (Political Favourites). Probably flat.

Notes and references

  1. ‘The Oscillatory System of Stereoscopic Projection’, The Optician, 28 October 1904. [return to text]
  2. The Optician, 30 December 1904 and 13 January 1905. [return to text]
  3. ‘Direct Stereoscopic Projection’, The Optician, 13 January 1905. Bessie Kate Brown, née Moore, was known to the family as Dora. This film was possibly the one shown at the first film show, described in a Salisbury Times report (4 December 1903) as ‘Mrs. Brown arranging flowers’. [return to text]
  4. The Optician, 13 January 1905. [return to text]
  5. The Optician, 30 December 1904. [return to text]
  6. Lenny Lipton, Foundations of the Stereoscopic Cinema: A Study in Depth (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1982) p. 247. [return to text]
  7. Theodore Brown’s Catalogue of Stereoscopic and other Specialities (Bournemouth, 1906), p. 34, and The Bioscope 22 August 1912. The Daily Mail report of 30 October 1903 was reprinted the following day in the Salisbury and Winchester Journal. [return to text]
  8. ‘Salisbury Microscopical Society’, Salisbury Times, 3 February 1905. [return to text]
  9. The Optician, 30 June 1905. [return to text]
  10. For the science of the perception of stereoscopic images from a 1903 perspective, see J.W. Baird, ‘The Influence of Accommodation and Convergence upon the Perception of Depth’, American Journal of Psychology Vol. 14 No. 2, April 1903, pp. 150-200. Theo’s paper ‘Monocular Stereoscopy and Direct Stereoscopic Projection’, in The Optician of 11 August 1905, covered various aspects of motion parallax and described the arrangement of a multi-plane filmstrip carrier. [return to text]
  11. The Bournemouth address in advertisements indicates that E. Osman Brown was dealing with sales of products, having taken control of their company in lieu of his earlier loan to Theo. [return to text]
  12. Theo’s bankruptcy is reported in ‘Failure of a Stereoscopic and Photographic Specialist’, Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 19 January 1907. [return to text]
  13. ‘My Impressions of “Kinemacolor”’, Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 31 March 1910. For more on this, including details of the likely cause of the depth perception, see Herbert (1997), Chapter 11. [return to text]
  14. See Bryony Dixon’s item on another Stereo-scenics film at BFI Screenonline: ‘The camera kept tracking sideways and the resulting effect on the screen had some ‘solid’ depth. The Malvern Hills was one part of a long-running series, the so-called Stereo-scenics, issued occasionally by the Hepworth Company and filmed by Gaston Quiribet [French cameraman, director, and animator]. About 30 to 40 titles are listed in the trade press from 1909 until Hepworth ceased trading in 1923. The use of the description ‘stereo’ is intended to evoke the ‘stereoscopic’ cards that were popular at the time. Cecil Hepworth, with his love of high quality photography, exploited the demand for such views by making a moving image equivalent of the cards. The subjects are relatively free from comment (just a few poetic intertitles) and contain people only as part of the landscape to provide scale or interest. Movement is provided by the use of slow panning shots and travelling shots from a motor vehicle of some sort. The treatment of the Malvern Hills region is conventional – it admires its rolling hills, the views from the beacons and the wooded lanes with picturesque thatched cottages.’ [return to text]
  15. ‘Kinoplastikon: As Seen From the Stalls’, The Bioscope, 8 May 1913. [return to text]
  16. Will Day, ‘Plastic Chromatic Films’, letter to editor, The Bioscope 20 August 1925. For more details, diagrams, and patent numbers see ‘More Plastic Effects’, Kinematograph Weekly, 8 April 1926 and Theodore Brown, ‘Plastic Effects with Multiple Screens’, Kinematograph Weekly 22 April 1926. A version using slides only was also described. [return to text]
  17. ‘Trick Work and Cartoon Films’, Kinematograph Weekly, 13 November 1924. [return to text]
  18. Kinematograph Weekly, 22 October 1925. Theo’s series was: ‘The Quest for Stereoscopy: A Review of the Conditions Necessary to Obtain the Third Dimension in Projection’, 4 February 1926; ‘Relief Effects’, February 18, 1926; ‘Monocular Relief’, 25 February 1926; and ‘An Illusion Attained’, 11 March 1926. The reference to Kazimierz Prószyński, who was very advanced in his understanding of motion perception, would be worth further research. [return to text]
  19. Photographic Journal, September 1926. [return to text]
  20. Provisional British Patent No. 14,648 of 1927. [return to text]
  21. While Bedding was in America he edited the trade journal Moving Picture World. [return to text]
  22. Montagu was later a founding member of the Association of Cinematograph and Television Technicians. [return to text]
  23. ‘Natural Vision Films: British Inventor’s Achievement’, Kinematograph Weekly, 16 June 1927. See also ‘Equipment Exhibition’ in the same issue. [return to text]
  24. British Patent No. 296,391 of 1928. [return to text]
  25. In his application in mid-1928 Theo gave an address in Streatham, South London, but by the time the Complete Specification was left at the Patent Office (25 March 1929) this had changed to 5 Goldsworth Hill, St John’s Road, Woking, Surrey, possibly as a result of the involvement of Mr Williams. [return to text]
  26. British Patent No. 319,406 of 1929. [return to text]
  27. Everyone’s, 12 December 1928. [return to text]
  28. Ray Zone, Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film 1838-1952 (University Press of Kentucky, 2007) p. 133. Zone’s book also includes details of the American inventors working along the same lines. [return to text]
  29. Louise Beaudet, ‘Pete Roleum and his cousins’, Archives 3, January/February 1987, Cinématheque de Toulouse. [return to text]
  30. The designs were recycled after Theo’s death in 1938. [return to text]
  31. The link is to a video of an amateur copy of Theo’s pop-up that I made in 2020. [return to text]
  32. Bookano Stories No. 1 (Strand Publications, 1934). We shall be visiting Theo’s pop-up book career in detail in the future. [return to text]
  33. Raymond and Nigel Spottiswoode, The Theory of Stereoscopic Transmission and its Application to the Motion Picture (University of California Press, 1953), pp. 99 and 173-175. [return to text]
  34. The 3-D film director Andre deToth famously only had vision in one eye. See more at ‘One-Eyed 3-D Movie Directors’ (2005) at The Straight Dope Message Board. [return to text]
  35. At our National Film Theatre technical rehearsal of the restored version in the 1990s, the print refused to stay in sync and the effect on the screen was excruciating. After eliminating the electronic sync control as the problem source, with careful frame counting I realised that on one of the pair of reels 1a and 1b the Warner opening logo shot had been spliced (in the negative) out of place, and after permission was given we had to chop it into line in the projection room. I yearned for single-projector, no special requirements, 3-D film projection. [return to text]
  36. Chris Mayhew, President of Vision III, letter to Stephen Herbert, 26 April 1991. [return to text]
  37. I have not researched later developments by Vision III, but the people involved were technically sophisticated and impressive. [return to text]

Bibliography

Bookano Stories No.1 (Strand Publications, 1934).
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).
Spottiswoode, Raymond and Nigel. The Theory of Stereoscopic Transmission and its Application to the Motion Picture (University of California Press, 1953).
Zone, Ray. Stereoscopic Cinema and the Origins of 3-D Film 1838-1952 (University Press of Kentucky, 2007).

4 thoughts on “Revealed: The World’s First ‘3-D’ Film Show (Part 2)

  1. Hello Stephen, Thanks for sending the latest missive, I am a little behind on my reading but planning to catch up soon with everything. The past few weeks have been very busy with planning a couple of art shows coming up in September and October, its been good to have some focus. There is one thing that I am trying to work out and perhaps you have an idea on how best to approach it. I have to attach 3 magic lantern slides together at the edges so they are held together and appear as one slide. My first thought was a hinging tape as these are used for sealing the edges of glass https://www.wessexpictures.com/Cotton_Rag_Gummed_Paper_Tape.html I would like to use conservation methods so that i am able to reverse the process. Sending best wishes Jo

    jo-israel.com

    instagram.com/jo_israel_art/

    ________________________________

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  2. Hi Steve,

    My head is spinning after looking through your research of Theo’s 3D experiments.
    Reminds me of another inventor, John Logie Baird, nearly getting there but not quite.

    Well done for all that hard work, I now have to read it properly.

    All the best,

    Lester

    Like

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