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The Viewmaster is a personal stereo camera, popularized in contemporary culture as a children's toy for viewing 3-D images. It has enjoyed a variety of uses since its introduction in 1939, ranging from military training to tourist memorabilia. While its applications have changed in the seven decades it has been produced, the technology has largely remained the same, circumventing some issues of compatibility.


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The first Viewmaster reels had blue outer circles and gold centers. Around 1940, production companies began making reels blue on the back side, and orange or tan on the front side. Only one year later, brown viewmaster reels became popular. Reels finally transitioned to white, the color that still sticks today. Despite all of these aesthetic adjustments, a reel from 1939 could still be used in a contemporary model and vice versa.


Model C

The Viewmaster device began when William Gruber developed a camera capable of taking stereo photographs and drew the support of Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Photographic Services. When Gruber and Graves introduced the Viewmaster at New York’s World Fair in 1939, it was meant as an alternative to the scenic postcards in which Sawyer’s had specialized. Originally intended to enhance science and education, the role of the commercialized Viewmaster morphed.

The Viewmaster did not resemble the futuristic models of the past two decades until about 7 years into its public life, when the 'Model C' was released. This model was the first to allow the viewer to insert a reel directly, and was also the first to have a 'Lite Attachment'. The technology for the product is that of the stereoscopic dual vision transparency, which is described as a “simple device that essentially make you go cross-eyed to perceive photographic depth”(Gizmodo). Each reel has fourteen pairs of images, resulting in 7 3-D images. The Viewmaster was originally marketed to capture a personal experience, but developed into a more commercialized venture, with reels being produced for televisions shows ranging from Mary Tyler Moore to South Park.

South Park

Binocular Vision

The viewmaster utilized binocular vision and stereoscopy to display images. Simply put, binocular vision is when both eyes are used together to view something. This system allows humans to determine whether various objects in the field of view are near or far, and what their distances are in comparison to other objects or landmarks. Due to this system, when one eye is closed it becomes much more difficult to clarify the distance of objects. The viewmaster works with stereoscopy, a technique that displays slightly different images to both eyes. Looking at a pair of slightly different images in each eye, a 3-D effect is achieved through such stereopsis. Since one's eyes are positioned slightly differently on the head, the images one sees in everyday life are slightly different, but the brain meshes these two images together into one general picture. The angle of the cameras mimics the angle of one’s eyes, and shows two slightly different images to simulate what one's eyes would see in a normal field of view. The two images viewed independently by each eye are able to create a system of binocular vision, thus allowing one to see the image from the reel.

Reels & Offshoots

Military Training

During World War II, the U.S. Government and the War Department agreed to a contract with the viewmaster company to produce millions of different types of viewmaster reels to train the U.S. Armed Forces, more specifically the navy and army. In the army, reels consisted mainly of gun range values, as well as models of Italian, British, Russian, Japanese, and German aircrafts. Several reels also included U.S. aircrafts to help servicemen become familiar with their own models. Army reels also portrayed potential landing regions in various countries to familiarize soldiers with possible deployment locations. The Navy also utilized viewmasters, mainly to portray planes and ships from America and from other nations so that servicemen could more easily spot opposing forces. Many segments of the forces had night studies in addition to day studies, so that servicemen would be more adept at spotting opposing forces in the dark. After the war, demand for viewmasters shot through the roof, and the production of reels for entertainment purposes began.

Popular reels used by the Armed Forces included:

  • The North American “Mustang” (P-51 U.S. Army fighter plane)
  • The Consolidated "Coronado" (PB2Y-3 U.S. Navy Patrol Bomber)
  • The Fiat "Fiat G-50" (Italian Fighter Plane)
  • The Heinkel “He. 113” (German Fighter plane)
  • The Fairey “Barracuda” (British Torpedo Bomber)
  • The Mitsubishi “Sonia” (Type 96 ALB-R Japanese Light Bomber)
  • The Stormovik "Il-2" (Russian Dive Bomber)

Talking Reels

The first talking viewmaster model was produced in 1971 by GAF. This newly styled device had an attached speaker, and used reels with attached records. The viewing area consisted of a large screen, as opposed to the binocular-like structure utilized on older devices. After inserting the reel into the device the reel would display the first slide, and the user would be required to press a small white button located on the viewmaster, which would synchronize the record to the picture frame. The new viewmaster design also included a volume bar on the side, which would trigger the needle on the record.

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The Original Talking Viewmaster

How The Talking Reel Functioned

The round speaker inside the viewmaster would produce vibrations and send them from the record to the back of the reel. This section would be constantly rotating, causing the vibrations to be transmitted through a rod and a spring, all the way to the speaker. The vibrations would be released from the speaker as the commentary or sound effects according to the picture that was being displayed.

Newer Versions of the Talking Reels

In 1984, a new style of the talking viewmaster was created by GAF. The new model included a handle for easy use, and a much smaller screen. The speaker and volume bar were still included, although in different locations than the older talking viewmaster. To operate the new viewmaster the user would insert the reel, which would be followed by a beeping sound which would only diminish once the user selected the first picture. Commentary would then commence for each picture, with a beeping sound notifying the user to move forward to the next picture. Once the user had seen all of the slides, a talking voice would commence, instructing the user to remove the reel from the device.

In 1997 TYCO created their own version of the talking viewmaster, which operated on batteries and used a much more compact design. The user would place a cartridge in the device, and a microchip would play commentary or a sound effect while the reel of film would continuously move, therefore the user was not required to do anything but sit back and watch.

Religious Reels

In the 1940s, a lineup of religious reels was introduced, consisting of actors dressing up and acting as characters in several stories from the Bible. Some of these stories were:

  • The Birth of the Savior
  • Prodigal Son.
  • Birth of Jesus
  • The Holy Land
  • Noah’s Ark
  • The Rich Man and Poor Lazarus

Some reels also depicted the history behind specific holidays like Christmas and Easter, while also providing some comic relief in addition to purely factual information. A reel of the tale "A Christmas Carol" was also released. Other religious reels also went into more in-depth stories, such as the Passion Play and the life of Pope Piux X. The religious reels served as a purely educational service, with one man even claiming that he ranked his viewmaster as his "Greatest Bible Teacher, with [his] father's sermons a close second..."

Viewmaster Projector

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Viewmaster Projector

Most viewmaster projectors created by the Sawyers were relatively simple and did not require much manual labor. The first one was created in the late 1940's, and it consisted of a lens, an arrow pointer, and a window to display the title of the picture. In the 1950's the S-1 model was created, but was similar in style to the orignial version. It did include a new and more sophisticated lens, as well as a carrying case. Some of the other models that were created included: The junior projector, the Custom 300, the Deluxe 100, the Standard 30, the Diplomat, and the Entertainer.

The Stereo-Matic 500 was created in 1953, and was widely recognized as the top of the line projector. The Stereo-matic allowed one to project viewmaster reels in 3-D and functioned rather simply; the user would push the reel into the slot onto the project, and lower a lever and turn a knobto focus the slide. The lever had three different positions: A, B, and C, and each one controlled a different function in terms of focusing. The Stereo-Matic package also introduced several accessories, including polarized viewing glasses, a carrying case, and a camera.

Projectors were advertised as “Low-Cost” while “completing enjoyment,” in either the standard, deluxe, or junior version. - Life Magazine, Issue from January 26, 1959.

Viewmaster Personal Camera

The viewmaster camera was created in the 1950’s to allow users to create their own ‘Personal reels.’ Each picture taken would produce two images, and the cut-outs would be placed in pockets and created into reels. This invention allowed users to control what they saw in their viewmasters, as opposed to merely buying mass produced reels of the same types of images. The personal camera was advertised as being able to take “brilliant, full color stereo pictures in thrilling ‘come to life’ realism, for less than the cost of ordinary black and white snapshots." - Popular Science Magazine, March 1953

Economic Perspective

Ad from Life Magazine, January 26,1959
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Ad from InfoWorld Magazine, October 13,1997

The Business of Stereoscopic Viewing

While the Viewmaster enjoys relatively little competition in the stereoscopic viewer market today, this wasn’t always the case. Sawyer’s acquired its main competitor, Tru-Vu, in 1951 and began its dominance. Fifteen years later, in 1966 this was interrupted when General Aniline & Film bought out Sawyer’s and the rights to the Viewmaster. The Viewmaster switched hands again and was for a short while an independent entity, the View-Master International Group (VMI) before being sold to Tyco. As a result of Tyco’s merger with Mattel Inc., the Viewmaster was moved to the Fisher-Price brand where it exists today. Where as originally it was manufactured in the Portland, Oregon area, with the move to Fisher-Price the Viewmaster has since been made in Mexico.

At their peek in the 1950's and 60's, Viewmaster advertisements could be found in magazine such as Life, Popular Science, and Popular Mechanics, among others. What started out as making your own three dimensional pictures transitioned to standardized reels to supplement personal collections. They pitched their images as 'vivid', 'come to life realism', and 'simulating the real viewing experience', but also used angles related to family interaction and memories of past vacations.

One of the most important points when examining the history of the Viewmaster is the acquisition of its main competitor Tru-Vu. This acquisition isn't crucial because it allowed Sawyer's to comfortably expand and develop its offerings, but because with it came the licensing rights to Walk Disney Studios. These rights set up the next step in stereoscopic viewing.

Evolution into a Child's Toy

Early uses of the viewmaster included World War II preparation and travel souvenirs, however companies soon analyzed the business angle and realized the viewmaster's potential as a popular child's toy. In 1951, the viewmaster obtained a license to begin making reels based on Disney characters, and from that other television and film concepts arose. In 1966, the Sawyer’s company was acquired by General Aniline and Film Corporation (GAF) and viewmaster reels made the complete shift from scenery and travel interests to entertainment, primarily for children.

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Reels from the movie "Cars"

Viewmaster reels in the area of Disney classics became extremely popular, with movies like Toy Story, Beauty & the Beast, The Lion King, Winnie the Pooh, Cinderella and Snow White, as well as newer films like The Princess and the Frog, Ratatouille and Cars with reels out on the market. Non-Disney reels in the field of entertainment and cartoons were also prominent. Characters like Woody Woodpecker, Tom & Jerry, the Captain Under the Sea, Barbie and dinosaurs from Jurassic Park had their own reels created.

Reels depicting fairy and folk tales also became popular, especially in the 1950's. They provided a new style, one different from those of scenery and even Disney characters, as each reel told the story of the fairy tale, as opposed to providing random pictures with no chronological order. One could buy reels with images of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck, Goldilocks and the three bears, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Jack & the Beanstalk and even Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Another style of reels depicted images of Disneyland, with pictures for all of the different areas of the theme park, including Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, and Main Street U.S.A. These reels acted as a sort of boundary between the shift from scenic and landscape reels, towards reels that provided entertainment and portrayed movie and characters and cartoons. The Disneyland reels can be classified as scenery, yet at the same time they can be classified as cartoons or entertainment.


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Winnie the Pooh Viewmaster Set

The viewmaster can be considered one of the most nostalgic memorabilia, since it has been around for over 70 years. The most prominent group of viewmaster users consists of individuals in their 30's, 40's and 50's, individuals who were children right at the time the viewmaster began creating reels for entertainment purposes (1950s-60s). As these adults take their kids to the toy store to buy them various other toys that the children now prefer over viewmasters, adults begin to feel nostalgia.

Contemporary Testimonial

"I bought 5 of these for my little cousins, ages 3-5 for Christmas. The little ones (the 3 yr olds) really enjoyed this gift and their parents (my first cousins) appreciated the nostalgia. The 5 yr. olds were bored quickly. I purchased just the ViewMaster itself and then found reels at an online specialty toy company that had a huge selection and the reels were slightly less expensive too. The ViewMaster seems smaller than I remember, but it could be that my head got bigger since I last used mine! They all arrived nicely boxed and were all in good working order." - Amazon Review, 2008

Decline of the Viewmaster

Currently ‘Model O’ is in production, but the basic design behind the product hasn’t changed much in the 70+ years and 1.5 billion viewers sold since its invention. Sales have dropped off and some estimate that the product only brings in 10 million per year, causing the arm devoted to scenic reels to be amputated(Whiteman). But this isn't the end of the iconic toy. There exists a large secondary market for older models of the cameras, personalized reels, and what appears to be a movement to 3-D porn. The University of Missouri recently bought 2,500 Viewfinders in their black and gold to promote their football team. Reels are being circulated for star players who might be up for awards such as the Heisman Trophy(Miller). The Viewmaster is a unique marketing technique that could latch onto the recent 3-D movement in film.

A Second Life on the Big Screen

While the Viewmaster may no longer be the flavor of the week, it has established a following of enthusiasts and drawn on the nostalgia of a user-base that is now in their adulthood. In July 2009, Dreamworrks Studios announced its intention to buy the movie rights to the Viewmaster with the intent of making a family-friendly film based on the popular children’s toy. The film will be written by Brad Caleb Kane and produced by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, of Transformers’ fame. Its release date is tentatively set for 2012 (Kit, Fernandez).

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Ad from Life Magazine, January 26,1959


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