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 viewed 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.
The pictures to be viewed were mounted as colour slides into circular cardboard discs, with each disc
containing 14 pictures, consisting of two pairs of seven images. The cardboard discs were inserted into a bulky Bakelite viewer, which had two lenses that fitted over the eyes of the user, and a translucent reverse to point at a light source in order to illuminate the images (although some later deluxe viewer models incorporated a battery-operated light source).
These hand-operated viewers incorporated a ‘click’ mechanism for turning the cardboard discs so the viewer could click from image-to-image-to image.
The View-Master hit the shelves in Portland, Oregon, and was initially marketed to 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 rival Tru-Vu Stereo Film Company, and with it, the rights to their Stereochrome viewers and their lucrative license to use Disney characters.
With access to Disney’s stable of characters and films, the View-Master began its assault on the nation’s toyshops with early releases including packs of images from animated films such as Bambi, Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp, plus live-action offerings such as Mary Poppins and The Love Bug
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.
Releases in the 1960s included View-Master sets for The Addams Family, The Banana Splits, Batman, The Flintstones, The Green Hornet, The Jetsons, Land of the Giants, The Brady Bunch, The Lone Ranger, Lost in Space, Julia, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Mission: Impossible, The Munsters, Star Trek, and The Time Tunnel. All came in packs of three reels, with 21 images in each pack.
View-Master began licensing sets from Gerry Anderson’s ever-expanding empire of British TV programmes, with Stingray, Thunderbirds, Joe 90 and UFO quickly joining the ranks of View-Master sets on
toy shop shelves.
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.
Some of these came with a story booklet which a viewer could flip through while they 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.
Other TV shows were added in the 1970s, such as Planet of the Apes, The Six Million Dollar Man, Space: 1999, Mork and Mindy, Worzel Gummidge, and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and 21-picture sets from movies were also released, including Live and Let Die, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman – The Movie, Moonraker, The Black Hole, and Star Trek – The Motion Picture.
Sales ebbed in the ’70s with the advent of all things circuitry-related, but the View-Master endured into the 1980s, issuing sets based on genre films such as Battle Beyond the Stars, The Dark Crystal, Tron, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, E.T The Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins, Superman II, Superman III, Indiana Jones and Beetlejuice. TV offerings expanded to include The A-Team, ALF, The Tripods and Star Trek: The Next Generation.
But before the decade was out, View-Master found itself on the losing side of the technology war, as VHS videos began to dominate the market. Why buy 21 photos from a TV show or movie, when, for a little more money, you could own the movie or TV show in its entirety on VHS?
GAF eventually sold its View-Master division to a group of investors called the View-Master International (VMI) Group. VMI was in turn purchased by Tyco Toys in 1989, who then merged with Mattel in 1997, leaving the View-Master range to be marketed under its Fisher-Price division from then-after and geared toward young children.
A quartet of Harry Potter film-related releases in the early 2000s saw the View-Master range quietly limp to an ignoble end. Fisher-Price finally announced the end of its range of View-Master reels of pictures in 2008. What was once an essential childhood plaything was no more.