Dundee optician’s legacy to science

© Flints Auctions.

THERE WASN’T much scope for George Lowden when he opened for business in Dundee in the 1840s as an optician and maker of instruments. Scientists elsewhere had been inspired by the presence of a comet and eclipse in the Scottish skies in 1737. But recalling his own early days, Lowden noted: “For a few years I had a hard pull to live, besides having to teach Dundee what scientific instruments were, and how to use even such a simple apparatus as a thermometer.”

But then Dundee spread her wings and her sons began long whaling voyages to Polar seas and exploratory trips to the New World, resulting in increased business for Mr Lowden.

So to an instrument which comes to auction on Thursday at Flint’s of Stoke Newington.

This is one of the earliest known lenticular stereoscopes by Lowden. Housed in a satinwood veneered case, and signed on an oval ivory plaque ‘G. LOWDEN, OPTICIAN, DUNDEE’, it is impressed with the early serial number ‘20’.

The brilliant St Andrews University scientist David Brewster first took his original design for a lenticular (3D effect) stereoscope to Lowden in 1849. Lowden made several of the instruments which in turn were given away by Dr Brewster to the nobility of England to promote the new discovery of stereo photography.

Unfortunately, they were given a rather lukewarm reception and as a result were not successful. The optician blamed the scientist. “The fault of Brewster’s stereoscope was that the lenses were too small, being in fact only two halves of a spectacle glass. This did not suit every eye and in experimenting I discovered that larger lenses were an advantage. I pointed this out to Brewster, but he was wedded to his opinion. I took out a patent for my improvement, but my action was, unfortunately, resented by Brewster, and gave rise to considerable friction.”

Brewster took his invention to the French firm of Duboscq et Soliel in Paris. Duboscq produced a model that was exhibited by Brewster at the 1851 Exhibition in London. It attracted the attention of Queen Victoria and her interest sparked a huge demand. In 1856 Brewster reported sales of over half a million stereoscopes.

A rare instrument, with only one other recorded, the stereoscope is estimated at £2000-£3000.