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Portland Piano Tuner Invents View-Master Picture System

The View-Master familiar to children for the last few decades originated in 1939. The idea was conceived by William Gruber, a Portland piano tuner.

He had experimented with some new Kodak color film and two Kodak bantam specials, with the idea of creating a technique for viewing seven pairs of pictures on a disk. The pairs would create a 3-dimensional effect and the sequence of pictures would tell a story or event.

Gruber met Harold Graves, president of Sawyer's, a Portland postcard and photo developing company, during a chance encounter at the Oregon Caves Chateau. They formed a partnership and worked out the details together, using the still-familiar View-Master format and i5mm transparencies.

The first patents were filed in 1939. The original viewer, the A model, had a flip-front opening and straight barrels for viewing. The first View-Masters sold consisted of the stereoscope and 15 scenic reels packaged in a wood-like paper-covered gift box. They were sold in Portland in 1939.

By 1941, there were 1,000 dealers handling the product throughout the United States.

In addition to entertainment, View-Master reels were used by some companies as an advertising technique, and during World War II, special training reels were made for the U.S. Navy and the Army Air. Corps.

A Model B viewer was brought out in 1943. It had a more streamlined design, and was made of a better plastic. It still had the flip-front opening.

After World War II, the Model C viewer was made, from 1946 to 1956. This is the most common square design, although it has been made in several color and design variations.

Subjects were continually added. Single reels were repackaged as 3-reel packets as an aid in marketing.

In 1966, GAF (General Aniline and Film Company) bought Sawyers. New 2-D projectors and a 3-D Talking View-Master were introduced at this time. Several additional ownership changes have occurred since then.

The earliest View-Master reels were dark blue with gold foil centers; they are often warped. The next were a dark blue and buff. In the 1940s, the reel was off-white or buff colored and in 1946, a white reel was used. These color changes can help collectors identify the dates on a reel.

In 2015, the National Parks Service hosted a three-day celebration at the Oregon Caves Chateua called “Birthplace of a 3D Viewing Device – The ViewMaster,” commemorating the 75th anniversary of Gruber and Graves meeting.

In a story in the Mail Tribune newspaper leading up to the celebration, Gretchen Gruber, William's daughter, said during her parent's visit to the Caves, her father was carrying two Kodak Bantam cameras mounted two eye-widths apart on an aluminum tripod.

"My parents spent the night at the chateau, then during the day went on a cave tour," said Gruber, who has written a book about her father.

"At the end of the tour, there was a tourist attraction called the 'Wishing Stone,' " she told the Tribune. "My father walked past it, but my mother rubbed it. She said she wished something would happen with William's invention."

About 10 minutes later, a tall gentleman carrying a camera happened along and asked her father about his device, she said. It was Graves.

"They started talking and continued late into the night," Gretchen Gruber told the Tribune.

Popularity of the View-Master may again spike soon. Current owner Mattel Inc. announced last year that a live-action View-Master movie is in the works with MGM.

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