The history of the popular kids’ 3-D picture-viewer will be told by the inventor’s daughter at the Caves
Gretchen Gruber has never been to the Oregon Caves National Monument, but the Portland resident anticipates an emotional experience when she tours the Southern Oregon icon this afternoon.
“Our family has traveled all over the world — Europe, South America, Asia — yet I’ve never been to the Oregon Caves,” said Gruber, 63. “But that’s where it all started, right there at the Oregon Caves.”
Her father, William Gruber, invented the View-Master, a toy known the world over. The technology also became a training tool for the U.S. military during World War II and was a valuable resource for medical schools.
And it took a serendipitous meeting at the caves in late summer of 1938 to start the ball rolling, she said.
Gretchen Gruber will visit the caves with her husband, Mark Wogsland. And at 11 a.m. Saturday, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the unique invention, she will tell the story of how a chance meeting led to the creation of the View-Master.
“My father and mother (Norma) went there on their honeymoon — it was their very first trip to the caves,” said Gretchen Gruber, one of three siblings.
But it wasn’t their first attempt at a honeymoon. Their first honeymoon up the Columbia River Gorge was cut short after her father became ill, she said.
“To make up for it, my father decided to take mother on a second honeymoon,” she said of the trip to the Oregon Caves in August or September of 1938.
“This was a couple of years after they got married,” she added. “They were very poor. My father was working as a piano tuner. They were on their way to Medford, where he had several pianos he was going to tune down there.”
A mechanical and optical engineer by training, he was also working on a couple of inventions. One included an idea to use two cameras simultaneously to take photographs of the same object from two different angles, then view it through a special device to produce three-dimensional pictures.
In fact, he was carrying two Kodak Bantam cameras mounted two eye-widths apart on an aluminum tripod while visiting the caves, his daughter noted.
“My parents spent the night at the chateau, then during the day went on a cave tour,” said Gretchen 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 continued. “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. The man was Harold Graves, president of Sawyers Inc., an Oregon postcard manufacturing company based in Portland, she added.
“They started talking and continued late into the night,” Gretchen Gruber said.
Over dinner that night at the chateau, they roughed out plans on how to put Gruber’s invention into production, she said.
When the owners of the firm saw what her father had created, they mortgaged their homes to pay for the production of what would become View-Masters and reels, she said.
“It was an instant success in the 1939 (New York) World’s Fair,” she said. “It all happened very quickly.”
Tourist attractions were featured on most of the early reels, although many of the later ones were intended for children.
During World War II, the U.S. military purchased 100,000 viewers and 600,000 reels to train its personnel. William Gruber later collaborated with surgeon David Bassett to create a 25-volume atlas of human anatomy using the View-Master system.
An estimated 1.5 billion reels have been produced since the View-Master was invented.
“My father and mother were so poor they would have taken a couple of thousand dollars for the invention,” she said. “Instead, they got 20 years in royalties for it. They were very well off after that.”
Her father died of cancer in 1964; her mother died in 2006.
Gretchen Gruber has created Facebook page for her father at www.facebook.com/WilliamBGruber.