… the old-time stereoscopes… they gave you the illusion of reality and yet you were only looking at a black & white picture stereo card, right? Now, imagine the thrill of looking not at, but through a translucent stereo picture in full Kodachrome color, with light coming though the film from behind to give you the illusion that you’re standing in the middle of a real scene!
- William Gruber in View-Master Memories
In 1938 William Gruber, a piano tuner and camera buff, invented a three-dimensional viewer known as the View-Master. The idea struck the German immigrant while recuperating from surgery in an Oregon hospital where “[h]e conceived of a way to use movie film to make stereo pictures and group them for viewing in a very efficient and inexpensive manner.” To make his vision happen, Gruber partnered with Harold Graves, president of Sawyer’s Photographic Services, who invested $50,000 in the idea. It had its initial debut at New York’s 1939 World Fair (Walsh 57-58).
Gruber brought this home entertainment gadget, initially marketed for adults, to the masses. In the beginning, Gruber photographed all the images, predominately nature scenes, himself. However, as the demand increased, many other photographers were hired to assist in obtaining the three-dimensional images. In 1951, with Sawyer’s Photographic Services purchasing their largest competitor, The Tru-Vue Company, they received the rights to all of the Disney characters, thus initiating the concept of the View-Master as a kid’s toy. The kid’s reels included fun Disney characters, like the Mouseketeers, but also educational reels, like the 1969 moon landing (Walsh 60).
After Gruber’s untimely death in 1965, Harold Graves sold the company to the General Aniline and Film Corporation (GAF), a larger corporation with a bigger advertising budget. Later, in the 1970s, View-Master sales declined because the View-Master was unable to keep up with the newly developing toys of the time, specifically with electronic capabilities. Thus, in 1970 GAF developed the Talking View-Master (Walsh 60-61).
In 1970, the Talking View-Master was introduced by the GAF company under the advertising slogan, “Pictures That Talk!” The new viewer with sound, although much larger than the original View-Master, functioned in the same way – top reel insertion and the same high-quality lenses. Initially the viewers were only available in a beige color, which was later changed to a USA themed red, white and blue color blend (Sell 271). However, a key component that differentiated the Talking View-Master from the View-Master Viewers was the electronic idea – batteries were essential to the function of these new viewers. The new electronically savvy toys of the 1970s forced GAF to turn away from their iconic toy and upgrade it.
Many sound specific reels were designed over the life of the Talking View-Master – “Scenic titles like the Grand Canyon, New York City and Disneyland; Cartoon titles such as, ‘Snoopy and The Red Baron’, ‘Popeye’ and ‘Casper’s Ghostland’ and educational titles like Birds of the World, Physics and The American Indian” (Sell 271).
The sound quality of the Talking View-Master, over the years of its distribution, was never a hundred percent, despite the intensive research and engineering that went into creating this device. The sound was provided through “a plastic record affixed to the back of the View-Master.” An electronic lighted version was distributed in 1974 to better the initial model’s sound quality. The electronic lighted version provided “a richer, clearer, high fidelity tone” through the use of volume control. In 1975, to further improve the sound, an earplug jack was included in the model for direct sound. Ironically, not only was the sound quality poor, but the “plastic phonographic record obscured the 3-D image,” producing an inferior image as well (Sell 271). “Although the View-Master was the Rolls-Royce of the View-Master world… you could never understand anything it said (Burke and Burke 1998).
The Talking View-Master Electronic 3-D Viewer
1984 brought about a new generation of the Talking View-Master Viewer, The Talking View-Master Electronic 3-D Viewer. This new model attempted to heighten sound quality and it “was envisioned that movies and music would be popular subject matter for this new viewer.” The microcomputer bettered the talking viewing device by including four components – self-cleaning sapphire needle, linear tracking tone arm, constant speed controlled motor and separate earphone. Additionally, the picture reel and sound record were protected in this newer version of the Talking View-Master. With the higher sound quality, a broader selection of reels was released, including “Masters of the Universe”, “Fraggle Rock” and “Peter Pan” (Sell 272). In late 1983, Arnold Thaler, president and chief executive officer of View-Master International (the company which purchased View-Master from GAF), disclosed in a press release that “initial retailer response has been strong, and will be followed by nation-wide TV advertising on” the introduction of the “new Electronic Talking View-Master products” (Beaverton).
1990s Talking View-Master 3-D
The 1997 Talking View-Master 3-D, produced by Tyco Toys, was the final version of the Talking View-Master. It was designed by Tyco Research and Development, where over its lifetime, six titles were produced, including “Batman and Robin”, “The Little Mermaid”, “Hercules”, and the first title of this model, “Jurassic Park.” A black “Star Wars” version and many other titles were in production before the development ceased (Sell 273).
Demise of the Talking View-Master
The demise of the Talking View-Master was caused by a combination of issues. The first of which was that the traditional View-Master model was changed. The final version, the Talking View-Master 3-D was too advanced for its time, requiring sound chips, which were only able to produce seconds of sound in this stage of its use, instead of reels. This differing format was additionally less user-friendly, making it much harder to use for kids (Sell 273). Another reason for the failure of the Talking View-Master was that this new device was brought to market during a chaotic time of the View-Master franchise. From the 1980s until the late 1990s the View-Master estate was sold from GAF to View-Master International, from View-Master International it became View-Master Ideal, which soon was sold to Tyco. However, it was during the Tyco and Mattel merger that the Talking View-Master collapsed because advertising of their latest model was not at the forefront of Tyco’s priorities. Thus, in 1998 when Mattel officially took over the View-Master Corporation, they decided to discontinue the talking version of the View-Master Viewer.
Additional Information on the Talking View-Master
Michael Jackson’s Interest in View-Master
Michael Jackson had always been a View-Master fan, but with the 1970s inclusion of sound, his interest was further piqued. In the early 1980s, Jackson signed a deal with View-Master to create Talking View-Master reels. In all, 25 titles were produced, the first of which was a talking reel for “Thriller” (Sell 272). Hank Gaylord, a Senior Photographer for View-Master after twenty-one years at the company, was actually approached by Jackson when he was shooting the Thriller concert, saying, “You know, this was my idea.” Gaylord also shot the Van Halen concert and one of the Pope’s appearances in the 1980s (Greene).
A 1984 Experience with the Talking View-Master
Bob Greene, an award-winning journalist, on his experience with the Talking View-Master:
Watching Mr. Jackson’s little drama on my Talking View-Master (it is heavier and larger than the standard model and runs on penlight batteries), I was impressed with the sound quality and the overall effect of the whole production. I tried another reel – ‘Popeye in ‘Paint Ahoy’’ – and the spoken dialogue drew me viscerally into the house-painting contest between Popeye and Brutus.
Continued History of the View-Master
Reason for View-Master Success
The Talking View-Master initially became incredibly popular in its onset because of the time period in which it was debuted. The late 1930s was an incredibly hard time for the American people with the end of the Great Depression and with the world on the brink of war. Thus, money and entertainment were scarce. However, the View-Master, marketed cheaply to the mass, was an affordable, long-term form of entertainment.
The fact that this simplistic toy, in the age of the Internet and high-end, interactive video games, is still being swept off toy store shelves after seventy years means there is some intrinsic value it has that keeps toy lovers wanting more. The ongoing success can be credited to four facts. The first is that the first version of the View-Master is very similar in design as the modern ones sold today. The 1939 viewer model reels can still fit in and be played in the ones of the early twenty-first century, sans the late 1990s Talking View-Master 3-D. Secondly, people of all ages can indulge in this activity, as the variety of reels created is endless. A third reason is that it gives the participant the ability to see a realistic setting of a place that they would not normally be able to experience. Finally, View-Masters are still affordable, prices are between $3 and $15 for the viewer and reels at Toys R Us.
Greene, in his September 1984 Esquire article, “A View From the Bridge of My Nose” openly admits his continued passion for the View-Master. Greene explains the possible reasoning of this, in the age of music videos, to be that “[m]aybe it has something to do with the idea that I can advance the pictures at exactly my own rate; maybe it’s simply the fact that I know that twenty million other Americans aren’t looking at precisely the same thing at precisely the same moment I am looking at it.”
View-Master Lives On
“Today the View-Master is in the National Toy Hall of Fame and is owned by the Mattel subsidiary Fisher-Price, which says more than 1.5 billion reels have been sold” (Walker).
In addition to the View-Masters that are sold at toy stores and on Ebay, innovators are finding a myriad of ways to use these toys. Joanna Solmon, now referred to as Vladimir, creates multi-reel stories called Vladmasters that she sells and presents to the public. Vladmasters are viewed in theatre-like productions where everyone clicks along to the action (Walker).
Paul Brenner – Director of the 3D Center of Art and Photography (http://www.3dcenter.us)
Tim Walsh – Author of Timeless Toys and Toy Expert
- Beaverton, Ore. "VIEW-MASTER-INTL; Financial results." Business Wire. 27 Oct. 1983. A Berkshire Hathaway Company. 10 Oct. 2008.
- Burke, Timothy, and Kevin Burke. Saturday Morning Fever : Growing up with Cartoon Culture. Boston, MA: Saint Martin's Griffin, 1998.
- Greene, Bob. "A View From the Bridge of My Nose." Esquire Sept. 1984: 11-12.
- Illustrated Parts Manual for Talking View-Master Viewer. Ms. PART NO. 890-922-01. GAF Corporation - Consumer Photo Division, Portland, OR, 1974.
- Sealfon, Peggy. "A Fresh Look At 3-D." New York Times 20 Jan. 1980: D36.
- Sell, Mary Ann & Wolfgang and Charley Van Pelt. View-Master Memories. M.A. and W. Sell, 2007. 271-73.
- Shuttlesworth, Karen Kemp. The Musical Collectibles of Raggedy Ann and Andy. Bloomington: Authorhouse, 2007. 31.
- Walker, Rob. "Toy Story." New York Times Magazine 13 May 2007: 16.
- Walsh, Tim. Timeless Toys : Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them. Grand Rapids, MI: Andrews McMeel, 2005. 57-61.