August 14, 2015

And now, a dip into history.

In the early years of the 20th century, a pharmacist named Edwin Mayer was working at a drug store. He was getting better and better at one of the store’s side businesses: photo development. It was still fairly early days for photography, and Mayer was drawn to it — more than he was to counting pills and pouring out tonics.

Mayer saved his money to buy part of a photo finishing business in Portland, Oregon. He started to play with photos, turning them into postcards so that tourists could show the folks back home what a beautiful Western mountain or a soaring state capitol looked like.

But it was in the 1930s that Mayer discovered an inventor who would change his life. William Gruber had been trained to build organs for churches and concert halls, and he had a few ideas about photography. He brought Mayer an invention that wasn’t totally new, but was far more sophisticated than what was on the market. It claimed to transport the viewer, to make them feel like they really were at Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon.

Mayer and Gruber worked with color film, and by the 1939 World’s Fair, their product was ready for the public — and fairgoers fell in love. Mayer and Gruber had created a pair of binoculars that, when you put them to your eyes, displayed colorful scenes of faraway places. As you clicked a lever on the side of the binoculars, the scene changed.

It was called a View-Master.

Pretty soon the device was everywhere: adults thought of them as inexpensive entertainment, kids wanted ones that told stories, and the military bought 100,000 of them to help train the troops.

Over the decades, View-Masters have become less and less common in kids’ toy chests. But the 2015 Toy Fair brought news that the old View-Master is being reinvented. It will offer an inexpensive version of virtual reality — or, if you’re up for something a little more old school, they’re still making those click-through photo reels.

innovation hub, Kara Miller, ihub, historical innovation, viewmaster

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