Icon View-Master

It began as a 3D viewer for tourist sites, then joined the war effort, became a toy and helped train doctors. Words Delwyn Mallett.

A chance meeting in the Oregon Caves, near the border between Oregon and Califoria, in 1938 resulted in the creation of one of the last century’s most popular and long-running educational toys. The sightseers, German émigré William Gruber and businessman Harold Graves, were both keen photographers. Graves’ attention was caught by the unusual ‘double’ camera that Gruber was using, and struck up a conversation. The chat continued later over dinner, at which Gruber outlined his idea for a 3D photographic viewer using tiny frames of the recently introduced Kodachrome colour transparency film.

Icon View-Master

Icon View-Master

Graves, as fate would have it, was a partner in Sawyer Service Inc of Portland, Oregon. Among its various photography-related actvities, Sawyer was the nation’s largest supplier of scenic postcards. Graves and the company’s chairman, Edwin Mayer, saw Gruber’s invention as a natural extension of their postcard business and immediately agreed to back its further development.

Stereoscopic viewers were far from an original idea. They had existed since the birth of photography in the 1840s and Tru-Vue, a rival US company which was a subsidiary of the marvellously named Rock Island Bridge and Iron Works, had been selling a small 3D viewer with pull-through sepia-toned 35mm film strips since 1933. Gruber’s ‘better mouse trap’ idea was to embed seven pairs of tiny Kodachrome frames into a 9cm diameter cardboard disc, which could be inserted into a viewer and rotated by means of a lever. The resulting View-Master was launched at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, not as a toy but aimed at adults with a quest for knowledge: the first discs featured views of tourist attractions such as the Grand Canyon.


Wilhelm Gruber, the son of a blacksmith, was born in Munich in 1903. He developed an early fascination with photography, and stereoscopy in particular. Not strong enough to follow his father’s trade, he trained as a pianomaker.

He joined the fledgling Nazi party in 1921 and was a fervent believer, something that would dog him after he emigrated to Oregon in 1924 and changed from Wilhelm to William. Gruber joined local pro-German groups and was an often-outspoken supporter of Hitler, which eventually brought him to the attention of the FBI. He had ordered lenses for his viewers from a German supplier but, when the US Government proscribed trade with Nazi Germany, his money was returned. This further aroused the FBI’s suspicions and he was detained as a suspected spy.

He was eventually exonerated, possibly helped by the fact that, as America entered the war, the US Navy ordered 100,000 View- Masters and over a million discs featuring aircraft and ships, both friend and foe, as training aids. Then, in 1951, Sawyer bought its Tru-Vue rival. This gave it access to Tru-Vue’s Walt Disney licensing deal, so Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other Disney creations soon pitched View-Master firmly into the toy market. The View-Master was an enormous success and made Gruber wealthy, but perhaps his greatest achievement in the 3D world took place out of the public gaze. Between 1952 and 1962 he worked tirelessly with David L Bassett, an anatomist at Stanford University with exceptional dissection skills, to produce the 25-volume Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy. Its 1547 pairs of slides were a boon to medical schools. Gruber died in 1967.

In the 1970s, in an attempt to revive flagging interest in the View-Master, there was even a talking version. It produced very low-fi sound via a miniaturised record player scratching its way across a disc attached to the back of the photo-disc. In 1981 View-Master was taken over by GAF (General Aniline & Film Corporation), which replaced Kodachrome with fade-prone E6 process film.

Now, after producing 1.5 billion 3D discs and surviving multiple corporate takeovers, View-Master is heading into the digital age with owner Mattel. Its new VR range promises virtual reality with – yes – a smartphone app.

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