Chakka-Chhh: The Hidden History of View-Master

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Had it not been for the FBI informant working at Chase Bank, William Gruber might have been able to enjoy his success.

It was 1939, and the German immigrant’s chance meeting with an employee of Sawyer’s postcard company in Portland, Oregon had recently netted an important business deal: Sawyer’s was interested in mass-producing Gruber’s View-Master, a portable stereo photography viewer that used a separate image for each eye to create a 3D effect. Held up to a light source, the reels created an immersive still picture.

There was just one stumbling block: The lenses for the viewer were proving hard to source. Eager to help, Gruber recommended Sawyer’s use a German optical firm, which could produce the number needed at a reasonable 7.5 cents per lens. But by the time the deal was completed, trade embargoes had made doing business with Germany impossible. The firm refunded payment directly to Gruber, who then cut a check to Sawyer’s.

A German-born citizen being sent funds from Nazi-occupied Germany raised a flag at Chase; the FBI was notified by their informant at the branch, and Gruber was cornered for an explanation.

He had one. It was legitimate. But there was also no denying that Gruber was a Nazi sympathizer who had voiced his support of Hitler ever since he had arrived in Portland in 1924. Shortly after the View-Master debuted at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Gruber was remanded to Idaho, where his assets were frozen and he faced charges of espionage. It was not a pretty picture.

Jack Pearce via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Stereoscopes, using pictures cards known as stereographs, had been a popular parlor entertainment since the 19th century, when the 3D viewers were set up in common rooms. Growing up in Munich in the early 1900s, Gruber was fascinated with the devices and with photography in general.

It was a nice hobby, but hardly a proper career; Gruber’s family expected him to follow in his father’s trade as a blacksmith.

The food rationing that came as a result of the first World War dampened those plans. Malnourished, Gruber didn’t possess the physical strength to perform that kind of manual labor. Instead, he became a piano tuner, and moved to Oregon in 1924 to pursue American citizenship and explore his photography in a more scenic environment.

The relocation didn’t dilute his feelings about the Nazi party. Having joined in 1921, Gruber continued to believe Adolf Hitler could unite a divided Germany. Pro-German groups in Portland counted him among their members; he espoused pro-Hitler views to customers while tuning their pianos. It’s unlikely Gruber had any idea how his vocal support put him on the FBI’s radar.

In 1938, Gruber married a Portland native, Norma, and the two went on a honeymoon to a lodge near the Oregon Caves. While toting around his dual-camera tripod to snap stereoscopic images, Gruber ran into another photographer, Harold Graves, who had been dispatched to take photos of deer for Sawyer’s.

Graves was intrigued by the curious set-up; Gruber explained how he planned on a viewer that could display 3D images in color, preferably for educational purposes. In addition to national parks and famous cities, the slides could provide identification of plants and animals; a wheel of images could be rotated with a manual lever.

Intrigued, Graves believed the images could act as a postcard alternative, sold in photo and gift shops as souvenirs. Gruber, who had long wished to strike gold with one business idea or another—he once wanted to grow mushrooms for a living—agreed to license the idea to Sawyer’s. The plan was to have the View-Master ready for a 1939 debut at the World’s Fair.

Gruber’s suggestion to source the lenses from Germany would have unintended consequences. With a money trail seemingly incriminating him and witnesses who could testify about his opinion of Hitler, he was a prime target for J. Edgar Hoover's crackdown on subversives. While awaiting trial, the government banished Gruber to Idaho, where he kept up a written correspondence with Sawyer’s employees in an attempt to oversee the development of the viewer—and, occasionally, was granted permission to return to Oregon to solve production problems.

While it seems odd the government would want to indulge a self-admitted Nazi during wartime, they had good reason. In a roundabout way, Gruber was working for them.

While View-Master got a welcome reception from the general public in 1940, the rationing of film and paper made it an expendable product. Sawyer’s feared that it would never regain that momentum. But in a reversal of fortune, the U.S. military saw an opportunity: The View-Master was a perfect vehicle to show soldiers slides of aircraft and ammunition for easy identification. At virtually the same time Gruber was in potato-country exile, the armed forces purchased more than 10,000 View-Masters and 6 million reels. (Amid the educational slides, a few risqué pin-up images of Bettie Page found their way into circulation.)

It was word-of-mouth advertising Sawyer’s could never have dreamed of buying. All the GIs who were impressed by View-Master while deployed came home and told their families about it. Instead of packing the household in a car for a trip, they could spend $1 for a viewer with seven slides that transported them anywhere they wanted to go. View-Master was an album of vacation photos that didn’t require a vacation.

By this point, Gruber had returned to Portland and to his normal life. Despite his Nazi advocacy, a federal judge had found that he was not a spy or working for German forces and ordered that his case be dropped.

It was a dark chapter in the device’s history, but it wouldn’t be the worst.

 
Gruber, who returned to his photography work by training his lens on mushrooms and other eclectic science subjects, never intended View-Master to be a toy. To him, it was like a pair of binoculars that could peer deeply into images with amazing clarity and detail. Coin and stamp collectors could keep a library of samples; rare birds could be photographed and studied for distinctive traits.

But Sawyer’s also took note of how much appeal View-Master held for children. Beginning in 1944, the company hired a sculptor, Florence Thomas, to craft customized scenes from fairy tales and children’s stories that could be placed in a diorama and photographed. Thomas produced a series of images from A Christmas Carol, Alice in Wonderland, and the Bible. The reels were popular sellers and essentially doubled View-Master’s demographic.

A Florence Thomas diorama of Snow White. Image credit: Internet Archive

 
In 1951, Sawyer’s purchased Tru-Vue, a competing stereoscopic viewer. While it was nice to eliminate the competition, Tru-Vue offered something even more valuable: a transferable license to Walt Disney’s character library.

Almost overnight, View-Master had access to images of Disney television series like Davy Crockett and movies like Bambi. At a time when color television was scarce and there was no such thing as a home video market, a child being able to revisit familiar characters—in Kodachrome color—was a big deal. The adventures of Donald Duck quickly eclipsed mushroom catalogs, though there was always an appetite for human subjects: the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II sold 1.5 million reels in just nine months.

Enokson via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

 
While View-Master wound up changing hands several times over the years—Sawyer’s was acquired by General Aniline Film Corporation in 1966 before eventually winding up in the hands of Tyco in 1989—Gruber never had much to do with corporate maneuverings. His passion remained photography. Following his encounter with the government, he embarked on the most ambitious project of his life.

After returning to Portland, Gruber struck up a friendship with Dr. David Bassett, who was then teaching at the University of Washington before moving on to Stanford. With Bassett’s assistance, Gruber wanted to use the potent visual stimulus of the View-Master to record the human anatomy in exacting detail.

The project, A Stereoscopic Atlas of the Human Anatomy, used dissected cadaver tissue to highlight intricate maps of nerves, muscle, and tendons. Bassett and Gruber sliced open brains and spinal cords, logging an unprecedented tour of the body.

It was probably best Gruber was busy elsewhere. It would take decades, but the View-Master plant in Beaverton that had opened in 1951 was found to have concentrations of the degreaser trichloroethylene (TCE) more than 320 times the legal limit, much of it seeping into the well water that employees drank. Several fell ill; many self-reported diagnoses of cancer. It was closed permanently in 2001.

Of View-Master’s lesser scandal, Gruber made a fair pass at redeeming himself. When the extent of Hitler’s homicidal tendencies were revealed, Gruber realized he had been mistaken about the Führer’s leadership qualities and he no longer made his politics public business. Work on the Atlas consumed the remaining 14 years of his life until his death in 1965.

While View-Master is probably best known for its licensed entertainment properties in the 1970s and 1980s, its most lasting contribution may have come from a rehabilitated Nazi sympathizer. To this day, the Atlas and its 1500 images are considered to be one of the finest dissection projects ever captured on film.

Additional Sources:
View Master: The Biography of William Gruber

Why Are So Many Ancient Statues Missing Their Noses?

Aninka/iStock via Getty Images
Aninka/iStock via Getty Images

Spencer Alexander McDaniel:

This is a question that a lot of people have asked. If you have ever visited a museum, you have probably seen ancient sculptures such as the one below—a Greek marble head of the poet Sappho currently held in the Glyptothek in Munich, with a missing nose:

A smashed or missing nose is a common feature on ancient sculptures from all cultures and all time periods of ancient history. It is by no means a feature that is confined to sculptures of any particular culture or era. Even the nose on the Great Sphinx, which stands on the Giza Plateau in Egypt alongside the great pyramids, is famously missing:

Full profile of Great Sphinx including pyramids of Menkaure and Khafre in the background on a clear sunny, blue sky day in Giza, Cairo, Egypt with no people
pius99/iStock via Getty Images

If you have seen one of these sculptures, you have probably wondered: “What happened to the nose?” Some people seem to have a false impression that the noses on the majority of these sculptures were deliberately removed by someone.

It is true that a few ancient sculptures were indeed deliberately defaced by people at various times for different reasons. For instance, there is a first-century AD Greek marble head of the goddess Aphrodite that was discovered in the Athenian Agora. You can tell that this particular marble head was at some point deliberately vandalized by Christians because they chiseled a cross into the goddess’s forehead.

This marble head, however, is an exceptional case that is not representative of the majority of ancient sculptures that are missing noses. For the vast majority of ancient sculptures that are missing noses, the reason for the missing nose has nothing to do with people at all. Instead, the reason for the missing nose simply has to do with the natural wear that the sculpture has suffered over time.

The fact is, ancient sculptures are thousands of years old and they have all undergone considerable natural wear over time. The statues we see in museums today are almost always beaten, battered, and damaged by time and exposure to the elements. Parts of sculptures that stick out, such as noses, arms, heads, and other appendages are almost always the first parts to break off. Other parts that are more securely attached, such as legs and torsos, are generally more likely to remain intact.

You are probably familiar with the ancient Greek statue shown below. It was found on the Greek island of Melos and was originally sculpted by Alexandros of Antioch in around the late second century BC. It is known as the Aphrodite of Melos or, more commonly, Venus de Milo. It famously has no arms:

Venus de Milo is an ancient Greek statue and one of the most famous works of ancient Greek sculpture
winduptu/iStock via Getty Images

Once upon a time, the Aphrodite of Melos did, in fact, have arms, but they broke off at some point, as arms, noses, and legs often tend to do. The exact same thing has happened to many other sculptures’ noses. Because the noses stick out, they tend to break off easily.

Greek sculptures as we see them today are merely worn-out husks of their former glory. They were originally brightly painted, but most of the original pigments faded or flaked off long ago, leaving the bare, white marble exposed. Some exceptionally well-preserved sculptures do still retain traces of their original coloration, though. For example:

Lady with blue and gilt garment, fan and sun hat, from Tanagra 325-300 BC
Capillon, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Even for the sculptures that do not retain visible color to the naked eye, archaeologists can detect traces of pigment under an ultraviolet light using special techniques. There are also dozens of references to painted sculptures in ancient Greek literature, such as in Euripides's Helen, in which Helen laments (in translation, of course):

“My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,
Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.”

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Chernobyl Will Soon Be More Accessible to Tourists, Ukraine Says

kefirm/iStock via Getty Images
kefirm/iStock via Getty Images

The Chernobyl exclusion zone, once considered one of the most dangerous places to step foot in on Earth, has taken on a much different role in recent years. The site of the 1986 accident that blew open the core of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and flooded the surrounding area with radiation is a tourist attraction today. The HBO miniseries Chernobyl has made the spot more popular than ever, and rather than discourage the public's fascination with the disaster, Ukraine is deciding to embrace it.

As CNN Travel reports, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky issued a statement declaring the 1000-square-mile exclusion zone around Chernobyl to be an official tourist destination.

"We must give this territory of Ukraine a new life," Zelensky said in his decree. "Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine's brand. It's time to change it. Chernobyl is a unique place on the planet where nature revives after a global man-made disaster, where there is a real 'ghost town.' We have to show this place to the world: scientists, ecologists, historians, tourists."

In order to boost Chernobyl's profile as a tourist attraction, the Ukrainian government will take steps to make it more accessible to the public. These will include establishing a "green corridor" that acts as a safe entry point into the area, and building new paths and checkpoints as well as renovating old ones. Pointless restrictions—such as rules against taking photos—will also be done away with.

Tours that take visitors through Chernobyl exist today, but they're much more complicated than a walk through the Louvre. Tourists must receive special permission to visit in advance, stick to approved routes, and undergo radiation screenings at various checkpoints. Despite the precautions required, tourism has exploded in the area by 35 percent since HBO's Chernobyl miniseries premiered earlier this year.

The Chernobyl exclusion zone is still radioactive, but safe enough that even the Ukrainian government is encouraging people to take day trips there. Even if you don't plan on booking your next vacation to Chernobyl, you can check out some photos of what the area looks like today.

[h/t CNN Travel]

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