Archives Unwrapped. Part 2 - Stereoscopes

Home > Archives Unwrapped. Part 2 - Stereoscopes


The Clifton Suspension Bridge has been available to the public since 1864 and has made it feel impossible to imagine Bristol without it. However, it is possible to see authentic images of the gorge before the construction of the bridge thanks to stereoscopes – a way of taking pictures, predating the invention of photography, that captured images of the gorge and construction of the bridge. 

Yesterday’s Archives Unwrapped gave the public a chance to experience (and learn!) about stereoscopes and the excitement they generated in Victorian England. Nothing else like this had been seen before. I can only imagine the excitement and possibilities it would have caused. It reminds me of when Avatar first came out and how everyone was ranting and raving about how you had to see it with its 3D going to revolutionise cinema! 

Visitor using our stereoscope

Stereoscopes were newly developed in the Victorian period and offered a chance of seeing pictures in three-dimensions, mimicking the way our actual vision works. Two photos of the same image would be taken slightly apart from each other and printed side by side on to what we call ‘stereoscopic cards’. These cards would then slot into the end of the stereoscope (a wooden viewer with a handle to hold it) and you would peer through the lens to see the images in 3D. The three dimensions is created by the left eye focusing on the left image and the right eye on the right image, blending the photos together and creating the 3D effect that was ever so popular. 

View from Rownham Ferry, Somerset side, Autumn 1863 © Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust - donated by Robert M. Vogel

I was able to get a chance to experience the stereoscopes with the authentic stereoscopic cards and was really in awe of both the process of building the bridge and the technology of the stereoscope. The images really brought to life the finer details within them. I would have not thought I would have been able to clearly see the faces of people in these images dating years and years ago. One card even made me question how good the camera on my phone was! 

One rather fascinating thing was that some of the cards showed changes of the landscape as well as places that no longer exist. I was able to gain a real sense of history right in front of my eyes. It is hard to imagine the gorge without the bridge but the archives here have stereoscopic cards with images of a bridgeless gorge and even images during the construction. I was taken back in amazement of how they managed to construct the bridge and what the gorge looked like before! Amongst their collection they also have cards of bridges that have since been knocked down which makes me feel lucky to have seen them. 

‘Suspension Bridge Works and Temporary Bridge' by W. H. Barton, 1863 © Clifton Suspension Bridge Trust - donated by Robert M. Vogel

At the moment, a lot of these cards are not in a suitable way of life to be used by the public daily. After years of use the cleanliness became worse. Thankfully, funding has been provided for the Clifton Suspension Bridge to have them professionally cleaned and restored and even have digitised versions made to allow them to be a lot more accessible for everyone and to enhance their experience of the bridge! 


Jamie Freeman

Website by Circle Interactive

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