San Francisco as it had never been seen before

Stereograph of damage from 1906 San Francisco earthquake
Stereograph 1906. "Looking northeast from Fifth street showing  . . . Flood Building." Harriet and J. William Rosenthal, MD Collection

On April 18, 1906, at 5:12 AM, San Francisco was struck by a major earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 7.7 to 7.9 on the Richter scale. People felt it as far north as the Oregon border, south beyond Los Angeles and east into Nevada. After the earthquake came three days of fire which left much of the city razed to the ground.

In the months after the “Great Disaster,” amateur and professional photographers flocked to document the ruin of San Francisco. Among them was W.S. Smith with his special stereographic camera.

Stereoscope, c1900. Harriet and J. William Rosenthal, MD Collection

First introduced in the 1830s, stereographs consist of a pair of nearly identical images mounted on cardboard. When the cards are placed in a stereoscope device, the viewer sees a single 3-D image. Human eyes are approximately two inches apart, which means that each eye sees a slightly different view of the world. Our brains put the images together (fusion) which creates the perception of depth, also known as seeing in three dimensions (3-D). Some people think 3-D images are more lifelike and give a sense of “being part of” the scene portrayed.

Between 1850 and 1930, an estimated 10,000 photographers around the world were taking stereo photographs. Boxed sets of cards and scopes were sold widely for home use. Popular stereograph subjects included travel destinations, natural wonders, World’s Fairs, wars and disasters such as the 1906 earthquake.

Visit the Museum of Vision for more information about the role of vision in history.

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