the first planetarium -- 8/28/19

Today's selection -- from The American Museum of Natural History and How It Got That Way by Colin Davey with Thomas Lesser. In the 1800s and early 1900s, advancements and interest in astronomy had grown to the point that museums offered elaborate mechanical models of the planets and stars. The next breakthrough came with the first light-based planetarium, which opened in Munich in 1925:

"The father of the modern planetarium was Oskar von Miller, the founder and director of the Deutsches Museum (German National Museum), an innovative museum of science and technology established in 1906 in Munich. According to the 2005 book Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria, 1930-1970 by Jordan Marche: 'As early as 1905, Miller sought to procure two mechanical devices for the museum's astronomical department. The first was a Copernican (heliocentric) planetarium, while the second demonstrated apparent movements of sky objects from a Ptolemaic (geocentric) perspective.'

"In 1913, von Miller commissioned Carl Zeiss Optical Works, a firm located in Jena, Germany, to build room-sized models of both types of planetariums. The Copernican planetarium proved to be fairly straightforward. For the geocentric planetarium, the scientists began by thinking in terms of a hollow sphere similar to the Atwood Celes­tial Sphere.

"Their efforts were interrupted by World War 1. But ultimately, the Zeiss engineers Walther Bauersfeld and Werner Straubel, along with von Miller, devised a breakthrough solution. Rather than having a large movable dome with the heavenly bodies affixed to it, they proposed projecting the heavenly bodies onto the dome with a moveable projec­tor. A large staff of scientists, engineers, and others spent five years developing the invention, which was unveiled at the Zeiss factory in August 1923.

A Zeiss projector in a Berlin planetarium during a show in 1939.

"That same year, the Deutsches Museum's planetarium was built with a dome on the roof and a ceiling-mounted Copernican planetarium in the lobby below the dome. The planetarium opened on May 7, 1925. It proved an instant sensation. By September, two lecturers were giving nine demonstrations daily. And at the Zeiss factory, up to twelve demonstrations were being given every day, with standing-room crowds of up to six hundred people.

"One week after the opening of the Deutsches Museum's planetar­ium, the American Museum decided to send Fisher to investigate. In September, Fisher visited the Zeiss factory and the Deutsches Museum, and upon his return, he enthusiastically recommended a Zeiss plane­tarium for the American Museum's Astronomic Hall. As he wrote later in Natural History, the museum's magazine, 'Judging from the experi­ence at Jena and at Munich, I believe it will attract more people to the museum than anything we have ever had here. When it becomes more widely known, it is sure to come to America. May the first one come to the American Museum of Natural History!' [a dream which came true when its Hayden Planetarium opened in 1935]."




Colin Davey with Thomas Lesser


The American Museum of Natural History and How It Got That Way


Empire State Edition


Copyright 2019 Colin Davey


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