In 1938, William Gruber conceived of an apparatus that would take colour photos, the transparencies of which he could lay over one another to create a 3-D image, which could then be peered at through a hand-held device with two eyepieces.
When Gruber was visiting the Oregon Caves National Monument with his wife, he met a fellow tourist named Harold Graves, who was the president of a company called Sawyer’s Photographic Services.
The two camera buffs had a lot in common and the next year, they joined forces to manufacture the first View-Master.
It hit the shelves in Portland, Oregon, and was marketed towards nature buffs – the first reels were sights like Colorado’s Pikes Peak and Virginia’s Luray Caverns.
The nature buffs apparently had lots of pennies in their backpacks, because sales were brisk.
During World War II, the US Military purchased 100,000 viewers and over six million reels for training personnel in vessel recognition and range-finding for high-calibre weapons.
In 1951, Sawyer purchased the Tru-Vu Stereo Film Company, and with it, the rights to their Stereochrome viewers and their lucrative license to use Disney characters.
The General Aniline and Film Corporation (GAF for short) bought Sawyer in 1966. GAF had manufactured slide and Super 8 movie projectors, and with them at the helm, reel sets from popular 60s and 70’s TV shows and movies were made available.
If you wanted a heavier dose of your favourite screen personalities, you could now plop that Brady Bunch or Planet Of The Apes reel in, line the arrow up, hit the spring-loaded lever, listen for that great plasticky click, and give ’em a whirl.
For the science buffs, there were still reels that harkened back to the early, more literal-minded View-Master days and chronicled things like the moon landing.
It’s a low-tech toy: no batteries required or electricity needed, and the only loose parts are the disc reels.
Some of these came with a story booklet which a viewer could flip through while he viewed, but a few reels had little self-contained narratives of their own – text would appear in the middle of the viewer.
GAF also introduced a short-lived “talking” version, in which an audio track played as the viewer clicked through the photos, as well as models that could project their pictures up onto a wall.
Sales ebbed in the ’70s with the advent of all things circuitry-related, but the View-Master hasn’t called it quits yet. It’s owned by Fisher-Price these days and is geared toward young children.