Chakka-Chhh: The Hidden History of View-Master


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

Mental Floss
How Jeremy Bentham Finally Came to America, Nearly 200 Years After His Death
Mental Floss
Mental Floss

One day toward the beginning of March, an unusual object arrived at a New York City airport. Carefully encased in a foam-padded, specially built wooden chair and strapped in with a bright-blue sash, it was the stuffed skeleton of one of Britain's most famous philosophers—transported not for burial, but for exhibition.

"We all refer to him as he, but the curator has corrected me. I need to keep referring to it," says University College London conservator Emilia Kingham, who prepared the item for its transatlantic voyage.

The stuffed skeleton belongs to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who died in 1832. But for well over a century, his "auto-icon"—an assemblage including his articulated skeleton surrounded by padding and topped with a wax head—has been on display in the south cloisters of University College London. Starting March 21, it will be featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition "Like Life: Sculpture, Color, and the Body (1300–Now)," marking its first appearance in America.

While the auto-icon has sometimes been seen as an absurd vanity project or memento mori, according to Tim Causer, it's best understood as a product of Bentham's trailblazing work. "I would tend to ask people to reckon with the auto-icon not as macabre curio or the weird final wish of a strange old man," says the senior research associate at UCL's Bentham Project, which is charged with producing a new edition of the philosopher's collected works. Instead, "[we should] accept it in the manner in which Bentham intended it, as a sort of physical manifestation of his philosophy and generosity of spirit."


Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite
Engraving of Jeremy Bentham by J. Posselwhite

Bentham is best known as the founder of utilitarianism, a philosophy that evaluates actions and institutions based on their consequences—particularly whether those consequences cause happiness. A man frequently ahead of his time, he believed in a world based on rational analysis, not custom or religion, and advocated for legal and penal reform, freedom of speech, animal rights, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.

His then-unconventional ideas extended to his own body. At the time Bentham died, death was largely the province of the Church of England, which Bentham thought was "irredeemably corrupt," according to Causer. Instead of paying burial fees to the Church and letting his body rot underground, Bentham wanted to put his corpse to public use.

In this he was influenced by his friend and protégé Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith, who had published an article called "Use of the dead to the living" in 1824. Smith argued that medical knowledge suffered from the limited number of bodies then available for dissection—the Crown supplied only a handful of hanged criminals each year—and that the pool of available corpses had to be expanded to allow surgeons more practice material, lest they begin "practicing" on the living.

From his earliest will, Bentham left his body to science. (Some scholars think he may have been the first person to do so.) But he also went one step further. His last essay, written shortly before his death, was entitled "Auto-icon; or, farther uses of the dead to the living." In it, Bentham lambasts "our dead relations" as a source of both disease and debt. He had a better idea: Just as "instruction has been given to make 'every man his own broker,' or 'every man his own lawyer': so now may every man be his own statue."

Bentham envisioned a future in which weatherproofed auto-icons would be interspersed with trees on ancestral estates, employed as "actors" in historical theatre and debates, or simply kept as decoration. The point, he felt, was to treat the body in terms of its utility, rather than being bound by superstition or fear.

"It was a very courageous thing to do in the 1830s, to ask yourself to be dissected and reassembled," Causer says. "The auto-icon is his final attack on organized religion, specifically the Church of England. Because Bentham thought the church had a pernicious influence on society."

Sketch of Jeremy Bentham's corpse laid out for dissection
"The Mortal Remains" of Jeremy Bentham laid out for dissection, by H. H. Pickersgill

There was only one man Bentham trusted with carrying out his last wishes: Smith. After a public dissection attended by eminent scientific men, the devoted doctor cleaned Bentham's bones and articulated the skeleton with copper wiring, surrounding them with straw, cotton wool, fragrant herbs, and other materials. He encased the whole thing in one of Bentham's black suits, with the ruffles of a white shirt peeking out at the breast. He even propped Bentham's favorite walking stick, which the philosopher had nicknamed "Dapple," in between his legs, and sat him on one of his usual chairs—all just as Bentham had asked for.

But not everything went quite according to plan. The philosopher had asked to have his head preserved in the "style of the New Zealanders," which Smith attempted by placing the head over some sulfuric acid and under an air pump. The result was ghastly: desiccated, dark, and leathery, even as the glass eyes Bentham had picked out for it during life gleamed from the brow.

Seeing as how the results "would not do for exhibition," as Smith wrote to a friend, the doctor hired a noted French artist, Jacques Talrich, to sculpt a head out of wax based on busts and paintings made of Bentham while alive. Smith called his efforts "one of the most admirable likenesses ever seen"—a far more suitable topper for the auto-icon than the real, shriveled head, which was reportedly stuffed into the chest cavity and not rediscovered until World War II.

The preserved real head of Jeremy Bentham
Jeremy Bentham's preserved real head
Matt Brown, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Smith kept the auto-icon at his consulting rooms until 1850, when he donated it to University College London, where Bentham is often seen as a spiritual forefather. It has been there ever since, inside a special mahogany case, despite rumors that students from Kings College—UCL's bitter rival—once stole the head and used it as a football.

"His head has never been stolen by another university," Kingham confirms. Causer says there is reason to believe the wax head was stolen by King's College in the 1990s, but never the real head. The football part of the story is particularly easy to dismiss, he notes: "We all have human heads, and kicking them doesn't do them much good, particularly 180-year-old human heads. If anybody kicked that, it would disintegrate on impact, I think." (Kingham also notes that the real head is not decomposing, as is sometimes claimed: "It's actually quite stable, it just doesn't look like a real-life person anymore. The skin is all shrunken.")

Another beloved myth has it that the auto-icon regularly attends UCL council meetings, where he's entered into the record as "present but not voting." Causer says that's not true either, although fiction became reality after the auto-icon graced the council meetings marking the 100th and 150th anniversary of the college's founding as a nod to the legend; it also attended the final council meeting of the school's retiring provost, Malcolm Grant.


Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
Thomas Southwood Smith and Jacques Talrich, Auto-Icon of Jeremy Bentham. UCL Culture, London

Bentham always wanted to visit America; Causer says he was "a big admirer of the American political system" as the one most likely to promote the greatest happiness for its citizens. But before he could accomplish in death what he failed to do in life, UCL had to mount a careful conservation operation.

The first step: a spring cleaning. The conservation team at UCL removed each item of clothing on the auto-icon piece by piece, holding carefully to the delicate areas, like a loose left shoulder and wrist, where they knew from previous x-rays that the wiring was imperfect. After a detailed condition report and an inspection for pest damage (thankfully absent), the team surface-cleaned everything.

"The clothes were quite grubby because the box that he's sitting in, it's actually not very airtight," Kingham says. A vacuum with a brush attachment took care of surface dirt and dust, but the inner items required a more thorough clean. "We determined that his linen shirt and also his underwear could do with the wash, so we actually washed those in water. It was quite exciting saying I've been able to wash Jeremy Bentham's undies." The wax head was cleaned with water and cotton swabs, and occasionally a little spit, which Kingham says is a common cleaning technique for painted surfaces.

Kingham's team rearranged the stuffing around the skeleton, plumping the fibers as you would a pillow. The stuffing around the arms, in particular, had started to sag, so Kingham used a piece of stockinette fabric to bind the area around the biceps—making them look more like arms, she says, but also reducing some of the strain against the jacket, which threatened the stitching.

But the most labor-intensive part of the preparation, according to Kingham, was devising a customized padded chair for the auto-icon's transport. Their final creation included a wooden boarded seat covered in soft foam that had been sculpted to hold the auto-icon lying on its back, knees bent at a 90-degree angle to minimize stress on the pelvis—another weak point. The auto-icon was bound to the chair with soft bandages, and the whole thing inserted into a travel case. The wax head was also set inside a foam pad within a special handling crate (the real head will stay at UCL, where it is currently on display), while Bentham's regular chair, hat, and walking stick got their own crates.

"We had originally joked that it might be just easier to buy him a seat on the plane and just wheel him in on a wheelchair," Kingham says, laughing.

The special chair constructed for transporting Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon
UCL Culture

Luke Syson, the co-curator of "Like Life," says it was touching to watch the stick and hat emerge from their travel boxes, even if the auto-icon's special chair did look a bit "like how you would transport a lunatic around 1910—or indeed 1830."

Reached by phone just after he had finished installing the auto-icon, Syson says he wanted to include the item as part of the show's emphasis on works of art made to persuade the viewer that life is present. "This piece really sums up so many of the themes that the rest of the show looks at, so the use of wax, for example, as a substitute for flesh, the employment of real clothes … And then, above all of course, the use of body parts." And the auto-icon isn't the only item in the show to include human remains—when we spoke to Syson, he was looking at the auto-icon, Marc Quinn's "Self" (a self-portrait in frozen blood), and a medieval reliquary head made for a fragment of Saint Juliana's skull, all of which are installed in the same corner of the museum.

Syson says he was initially worried the auto-icon might not "read" as a piece of art—worries that were dispelled as soon as he installed the wax head. "The modeling of the face is so fine," he says. "The observation and expression, the sense of changing personality … there's a lovely jowliness underneath his chin, the wrinkles around his eyes are really speaking, and the kind of quizzical eyebrows, and so on, all make him really amazingly present."

And unlike at UCL, where the auto-icon sits in a case, viewers at the Met are able to see him on three sides, including his back. "He sort of springs to attention on his chair, he's not sort of slumped, which you couldn't see in the box [at UCL]."

Those who have worked with Bentham's auto-icon say it encourages a kind of intimacy. Taking the auto-icon apart, Kingham says, "you really do feel a closeness to Jeremy Bentham, because you looked in such detail at his clothes, and his bones, and his skeleton." The wax head, she says, is particularly lifelike. "People who knew him have said that it's a very, very good realistic likeness of him," she notes, which made it both eerie and special to handle so closely.

"This is both the representation and the person," Syson says. "We've been calling him 'Jeremy' these last few months, and he's sort of here, and it's not just that something's here, he's here. So that's an amazing thing."

Nearly 200 years later and across an ocean, Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon has arrived to serve another public good: delighting a whole new set of fans.

Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
National WWII Museum Launches a European Tour Tracing the 'Band of Brothers' Path
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Jyrki Kymäläinen, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Thanks to Stephen E. Ambrose's book Band of Brothers and the HBO miniseries of the same name, the story of "Easy" Company of the United States Army is among the most famous to come out of the Second World War. Now WWII buffs have a whole new way to experience that chapter in history: The National WWII Museum in New Orleans is offering a 13-day European excursion that traces the company's footsteps from Britain to Nazi Germany.

Easy Company suffered from one of the highest casualty rates of any U.S. company during World War II. They landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, fought in the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and captured Hitler's infamous Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

All of those highlights are covered in the WWII Museum's tour called "Easy Company: England to the Eagle's Nest." The museum was founded by Ambrose, and the new tour gives guests an intimate look at the sites mentioned in his book. During the excursion, tour members will be treated to commentary from museum historians and guest appearances from the actors who portrayed Easy Company soldiers in the miniseries. Admission to historical sites at each stop, as well as meals, transportation, and accommodations, is included in the price.

The next available tour starts September 9, with tickets costing $8490 for single guests and $6495 for each guest traveling as a couple. And if you're looking for another book-related escape for your next vacation, Rail Europe's literary tour of the continent may suit your tastes.


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