Theaters of Time and Space: The American Planetarium Community, 1930-1970
Between 1930 and 1970, American astronomy education was transformed by the introduction of a remarkable teaching tool —the projection planetarium. Conceived and perfected at the Carl Zeiss firm of
Jena, Germany, the first prototype was exhibited at the Deutsches Museum, Munich, in 1923. Its strikingly realistic portrayal of the heavens and reproduction of celestial motions immediately captivated public audiences. Professional astronomers greeted the planetarium w ith enthusiasm and praised its effectiveness in portraying abstract concepts of the celestial sphere. Popular response to its superb illusion of the night sky, including that of infinite space, completely overshadowed the device's original purpose. The historical significance of planetaria, in re-shaping the nature of astronomy education in North America, has never been adequately described.
In the United States, the first projection planetarium was installed at Chicago in 1930. Over 700 similarly-operating institutions were either completed, under construction, or remained in the planning stages by 1970. During this interval, more than 900 individuals (including professional astronomers, school teachers, and museum employees) became planetarium directors. Members of the American planetarium community united to establish the first continent-wide association and to launch its quarterly journal, signifying that disciplinary maturity and stability had been achieved.
Attempts to bring the projection planetarium to American soils were closely linked with efforts to establish the first industrial museums. Among living benefactors, strong teleological foundations guided their decisions to construct these facilities. Donors hoped that planetaria would offer tangible, convincing arguments that our universe and the physical laws governing it were products of intelligent, benevolent design, while human differences (including race, class, and gender) might seem inconsequential in light of such demonstrations.
Four (of five) Zeiss planetaria b u ilt during the form ative period reveal the influence of George E. Hale's ideas that planetaria should fu lfill more than just pedagogical functions. Hale believed that the planetarium director should also be an active researcher. He was convinced that, along w ith seeing accurate replicas of the night sky, planetarium visitors would wish to observe celestial objects through moderate-sized telescopes. The association of astronomical, and especially solar, telescopes with planetaria is one of Hale's legacies in planetarium design and operation.
On the basis of technical developments in planetarium hardware and the changing nature of patronage responsible for institution-building, three distinct periods of historical development are recognized. In the formative period (1930-1946), the American planetarium community was dominated by Zeiss-equipped facilities installed in five metropolitan cities (Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, and Pittsburgh). Two smaller planetaria, featuring American-built projectors, were constructed at San Jose, California, and Springfield, Massachusetts.
D uring the second period (1947-1957), inexpensive pinhole-style projectors, developed and marketed by Philadelphia entrepreneur Armand N. Spitz, revolutionized the availability of 'artificial skies' and brought the planetarium experience to much wider audiences. Success was spurred by increased national prosperity, pro-natalism, and abundant leisure time. Plans for the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and attendant launch of the first artificial earth satellites incurred tremendous public interest. The number of American planetaria grew to more than one hundred installations, including those found in smaller, regional museums/science centers.
In response to the ""crisis of confidence"" triggered by Sputnik's launch, a third developmental period (1958-1970) ensued. It was characterized by the newest and most important source of patronage available —the federal government. Passage of landmark legislation, initiated by the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (carrying matching Title III funds), created the largest phase of planetarium building ever witnessed. Public schools/districts (and later universities/colleges) became its principal beneficiaries. Planetaria offered ""a resounding answer to some of the questions directed at our schools because of Sputnik"" and became primary vehicles for the delivery of space-science curricula during the 1960s. As a consequence, the long-dormant 'cycle of astronomy teaching and learning' was reactivated among the nation's schools and colleges.
Social developments in the American planetarium community are examined in light of three principal issues (along w ith the role of gender): patronage, disciplinary professionalization, and popularization. While an analytical narrative is employed throughout the study, interpretations are supplemented by quantitative analysis of the first comprehensive catalog of North American planetaria (issued in 1971). Reflecting methods employed in collective biography, the Appendix offers a quantitative assessment derived from five professional traits of the community's 919 known planetarium directors.
American planetaria have posed challenges to traditional notions in
the popularization of science. While created for the diffusion of astronomical knowledge, they became important tools for testing biological and educational theories, thus enabling researchers to establish new scientific results. At the same time, ideas conveyed about our nation's space program carried the potential to alter public perceptions and policy decisions regarding allocations for research. Simplistic models employed in science communication theories, which describe the flow of information from knowledge experts (scientists) to
passive recipients (consumers), require m odification to accommodate feedback loops of this kind. Planetaria operate as theaters of time and space, capable of transporting visitors in their imagination to any part of the earth's surface (or beyond) and revealing the intricate motions of celestial objects at times past, present, and future. As educational institutions serving localized clienteles, planetaria act as clearinghouses for astronomical and space-related information. Millions of visitors attend planetarium demonstrations annually, where they are exposed to carefully-orchestrated mixtures of education and entertainment. Planetaria have attracted new audiences unimagined by their inventors. This is a study of the men and women who formed a community around the educational functions of a mechanical device termed 'the greatest teaching aid ever invented' — the projection planetarium .
Type of Publication
Marché, Jordan D.
Nation(s) of Study
United States of America