The planetarium in our Museum was installed in 1961 under the guidance of Fred Mold, director of the Museum at that time. Many hands took part in raising the domed ceiling that would capture the heavens, inviting thousands of guests on guided tours of the cosmos.
Our Spitz Model A planetarium projector is an impressive piece of equipment that remained in place until 2012. If you experienced a presentation in the planetarium before the new digital projection system arrived, you might remember the large and fascinating machine with movable arms that illuminated the dome with sharply defined points of light. It commanded the center of the planetarium, sending colored beams in all directions.
Museum educators manipulated this projector to journey through the stars and planets with accuracy and precision. It was a monumental machine that required skill and practice to master. The original Spitz projector is now on display in the Museum, and there is an unexpected back-story to this unusual hardware.
In 1946, Armand N. Spitz was the Director of Education at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, and he wanted to build a planetarium that was affordable. Spitz became an amateur astronomer when he traveled to France to work as a writer during the 1930s. In order to pay his way, he took a job washing dishes on the ship that brought him to Europe. An officer on the ship taught Spitz celestial navigation, and he built a sextant out of a toothpick and board in a water-filled dish pan to determine positions. His fascination with the stars and interest in machinery came together on his kitchen table, where he designed a planetarium projector that could be produced inexpensively. The first Spitz planetarium projectors sold for $500 and were installed across the US, opening the skies for generations of astronomy enthusiasts.
Our original projector is now part of our “Story of the Fairbanks Museum” exhibit. It was in service from 1961 until New Year’s Eve 2011. It looks sort of like a prop from a science fiction movie – a big dodecahedron, mounted like a globe with a large array of what look like laser pointers at one end of the base. You can see hundreds of tiny pinholes that each correspond to stars almost all the way down to the limit of what you can see in the real sky.
Its geometric shape is due to the fact that flat plates were cheaper to manufacture than perfect spheres more than 50 years ago. Each one of the “laser pointers” corresponds to one of the five easily visible planets, the moon, and the sun. There’s a secondary projector for grid lines and the ecliptic, as well as a set of red and blue lights to mimic dawn and dusk.
If you came to our Museum years ago as a kid to watch a planetarium show, this is certainly what you saw. When the specialized light bulbs used for the Spitz projector were no longer manufactured, we converted to the new technology of the Digitalis projection system that is in place now. Digital projection is more flexible, and it allows us to show movies and pull up big images of specific objects that would never be possible with the Spitz Model A.
“I never expected to make any substantial contribution to astronomy or science, but what greater satisfaction can I have than to have one very famous astronomer tell me that he gained his first interest in astronomy through viewing a Spitz planetarium when he was a small boy. I can only hope that in whatever celestial book-keeping there is I will be given indirect credit for helping along the knowledge of the heavens.” – Armand Spitz