For less than $100, we can enjoy 3D life wherever and whenever. With a gizmo 7.7 x 6.6 x 5 inches, you can see street festivals around the world, fly through the Alps, snag front-row seats to a major event, or kayak through a protected rainforest. Carlo Ponti (1823–1893) patented the first in the family of these devices in 1860. In 1862, his Super-sized Virtual Reality Megalethoscope brought the world to armchair travelers just as VR is doing for us today. His device was a mere 20″ wide x 36″ long x 24″ high.
Radical developments in transportation during the Industrial Revolution dramatically increased tourism as travel became easier, safer and faster. But for those Victorians who couldn’t or wouldn’t travel, dramatic improvements in photography brought spectacular images o the world to them.
Swiss-born Carlo Ponti was the official optician to King Victor Emanuel II of Italy. He was also a highly skilled and accomplished photographer who studied in Paris for eight years. He settled in Venice in 1854. Thanks to the invention of the albumen print in 1847, photographs processed on paper opened the door to a world of new businesses.
Ponti was known for his Ricordi di Venezia—a series of photographic albums. He also published work of other photographers. While his subject matter was wide ranging, he had a special flare for showing depth and perspective in his architectural images.
In 1861 Ponti patented his Alethoscope, an optical apparatus for viewing specially prepared albumen photographs through a lens that enlarged them and created the optical illusion of depth and perspective. The multi-layered photographs were colored and perforated to show day and night versions, then mounted on a curved frame.
The holes were barely visible from the front. Sections of the print were trimmed so that the paper was thinner in some areas, allowing more or less light to come through.
To see a daytime image, the top of the instrument is open, allowing light to hit the front of the image. For a night scene, the top of the instrument is closed to keep the light off the photograph. The device was typically lit with a kerosene or oil lantern.
Ponti and his fellow photographers produced images for his new devices from their travels around the world. Many of them survive to this day. Victorians could experience the virtual reality from the Middle East and across Europe while never leaving their comfortable parlors.
The concept of Virtual Reality is not entirely new.
-One of the early documented ideas was in 1860s with the French avant-garde playwright Antonin Artaud. He persuaded his audience to see that the line between real life and stage life was blurred.
-1935, science fiction writer Stanley G. Weinbaum wrote about the equivalent of today’s virtual reality headsets.
-1939, View-Master introduced their first stereoscopic visual simulator.
-1950s, Morton Heilig wrote about his all encompassing Sensorama Virtual Reality experience.
-1950s, View-Master advanced, allowing us to view 3-D images on a paper disk. It was mostly marketed as a toy but was originally sold as a way for us to view tourist attractions like Disneyland. With a click of the gizmo you could be anywhere from the Jungle Ride to the Haunted Mansion without waiting in line, much like Victorians could peer into Ponti’s Megalethoscope a century before.
Of course today a simple search will yield countless Virtual Reality devices. Choose your price range and specific details and you can have as much reality as you care to experience.
Carlo Ponti lost his patent thanks to legal snafus resulting from the Peace Treaty of 1860 after the Austrio-Prussian War.
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