The point wasn’t the plot but to prove that the brain could be tricked into seeing images in three dimensions. The red-and-cyan 3-D system that grew out of their experiment enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1920s. But the technology worked only with a limited palette. Edwin Land would solve that problem by inventing polarized lenses in 1936, which worked in full color. These ushered in a new wave of 3-D mania when the technology made its way to Hollywood in the 1950s. At the same time, cheap red-and-cyan glasses based on the earlier system became popular in the world of comic books and B-movies.
“Every 20 to 30 years, you get this craze for 3-D movies,” says Jack Theakston, a historian with the 3-D Film Archive, which then burns out. Today’s “Avatar”-inspired boom is very likely no exception, Theakston says. Inventors, meanwhile, continue to work on the holy grail: 3-D effects with no glasses.