Vintage View-Master Reels: The History of View-Master Viewers

The History of View-Master Viewers

Remembered by many as a cherished childhood toy, the View-Master has a long and fascinating history. The View-Master viewer and View-Master slides were actually based on the earlier stereoscopic viewer, which dates all the way back to the 1800s.

Created by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838, even before the advent of practical photography, the early stereoscopic viewer used mirrors and drawings to create a perception of depth when looking at images through it. From there, the less cumbersome hand-held Brewster stereoscope was created and introduced at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. These old-fashioned stereoscopes consisted of two lenses, one for each eye, through which two side-by-side photos or images mounted on cardstock would be viewed.

Stereoscopic viewers have come a long way since those days. Although they are still evolving today, the basic technique behind viewers remains essentially the same. By presenting two images to be viewed simultaneously but separately by the right and left eyes, they create an illusion of depth as the images are combined by the brain.

The original View-Master viewer came about through the partnership of two men, William Gruber, an inventor, and Harold Graves, the president of Sawyer's postcard company. Gruber built a 3D camera setup which used two cameras simultaneously representing each eye. The cardstock photos of the old stereoscopic viewers were replaced with View-Master slides, which consisted of rotating paper disks containing seven image pairs. The 3D View-Master premiered at the World's Fair in New York City in 1939.

It began as an educational tool for adults and was even used as a training tool by the U.S. Military during World War II. Early reels depicted tourist attractions such as the Grand Canyon. David Bassett, an anatomy professor, worked with Gruber for seventeen years to create the 25-volume "Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy" (1962).

Eventually, though, the 3D View-Master became best known as a highly sought-after children's toy. Acquiring the rights to Disney in the 1950s allowed the company to portray Disney characters and to create reels of the newly opened Disneyland in 1955. In the sixties, television shows and movies became popular subjects for reels.

Over the years, viewers have gone through many models, some incorporating new features such as sound, light projection, and even virtual reality. The View-Master has become a cultural icon in its own right and was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999.

Rich Dubnow, one of the lead photographers at View-Master from 1978 to 1997, traveled the world and photographed diverse subjects ranging from Pope John Paul II to the Muppets during his tenure.

When Dubnow left View-Master in 1997, he founded a new company, Image3D, to create personalized 3D viewers and reels for businesses. Image3D expanded into the general consumer market in 2012 and has launched a website where customers create their own personalized reels, a program now known as RetroViewer.

By incorporating digital photography, Dubnow has completely revolutionized the stereoscopic reel, bringing it into the twenty-first century. He has transformed the View-Master slides into a reel made out of one solid piece of film. Most importantly he has brought back childhood memories and is bringing smiles to a new generation. In Dubnow's words, "you can't pick up a viewer without having a great smile."

For more information about RetroViewer and all that it offers, check out our RetroViewer products, where you can learn how to create custom reels and viewers for special occasions, corporate events, marketing materials and more. The Image3D RetroViewer makes a great gift for weddings, wedding proposal ideas, anniversaries, birthdays, graduations, gender reveal parties, etc. It is a perfect choice for that special person in your life who has everything, and it is guaranteed to bring a smile.

See our recent feature in Oregon Art Beat

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