The Viewmaster

While today’s youth gets its kicks from video games that get ever more sophisticated previous generations had the the View-Master. It was a primitive cross between a portable VCR and the virtual universe, which nowadays we take for granted.

The View-Master was very easy to use and brilliantly effective in its results. It worked via component parts and a 14-cell disc reel which comprised two still transparencies of each of seven individual images, all contained inside a goggle-eyed viewer made often from Bakelite. It had a spring-loaded lever mechanism for turning the reel and thus the View-Master worked its magic.

The View-Master was invented by William Gruber, an organ maker from Portland, Oregon.  Gruber began to modernise the picture postcard by using a stereoscope and the newly marketed Kodachrome colour film.  He got together with Harold Graves, the president of postcard specialists Sawyer’s Inc and together they started the production of View-Master, which made its debut at the 1939 World Fair in New York.

The early View-Master subjects included reels featuring images of national parks and international cities as well as wild flowers.  Then View-Master managed to obtain a licence to portray Disney characters which made it extremely popular.

In 1966 Sawyer’s was bought by the General Aniline & Film Corporation (GAF) and we you able to enjoy scenes from movies and TV putting yourself right in the middle of the action.  Imagine assisting Dr Who and K9 in their escape from the planet Alzarius.

While the early View-Masters came in square wrapped sets with an accompanying booklet, the later ones came in blister packs on a hanging card, just like a lot of the leading toys of the time, but unlike the action figures the View-Master was able to draw the viewer directly into the proceedings.

The View-Master had its brief heyday before the advent of the portable 3D hand-held electronic games made an appearance in 1983 which was the onset of the home video game revolution.

Although the View-Master is a quaint relic of a bygone era it has a strong cult appeal and the sheer volume of different reels manufactured over the years make it extremely collectable.  It is still possible to find blister packs unopened and intact.  Pop/Sci-Fi collectors love the distinctive pod-shaped Model K ‘space viewer’ whose helmet like design is a stylish precursor of virtual reality headgear.

If you are lucky you could even get an authentic View-Master camera and make your own reels, although this is not an easy process.  The camera will work with standard 35mm slide film and can be developed conventionally with each image split and repeated twice per slide.

View-Master reels are still being marketed today for a much younger target audience by Mattel’s Fisher-Price subsidiary with a limited subject range reflecting their continuing relationship with Disney.  Although it’s hard to believe you could actually get reels of an adult nature.

The main achievement of View-Master was that it managed to reverse the Film and TV merchandising campaign.  Instead of bringing the show into the home of its customers it brought its customers right into the action.  Bound up with the Americana of drive-in movies and 3D glasses, the View-Master has attained an ageless status.

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