Monday, March 30, 2009

A Dream of the Stars: A Brief Look at the Historic Rosicrucian Planetarium (Part 2)

The Rosicrucian Planetarium was the fifth built in the United States, and part of a very long tradition. Planetarium history begins during ancient Egypt and the tomb of Senenmut— the earliest known depiction of the sky. Nearly 2,200 years ago the Greek philosopher Archimedes (287–212 BCE) is credited with creating the first early planetarium device that could predict the movements of the Sun and the Moon as well as the planets. Today these devices are usually referred to as orreries. In fact, many planetariums today have what are called projection orreries (including ours) which project onto the dome the Sun and planets, usually those planets limited to the ones visible with the naked eye (Mercury - Saturn).

The first device that we might refer to as a true “planetarium," that is an enclosed area intended to observe an artificial sky, appears to have been a type of tent with holes punched in it so as to emulate the constellations as they appeared in the sky.

Originally designed and crafted by the Arabs of the 13th century, the device eventually came to Europe as a result of the Crusades. In 1229 the emperor Friedrich II of Hohenstaufen brought one such tent with him from a campaign in the Near East. Although none remain today and the details are limited, it seems that the viewer sat within, while a kind of rotating platform moved the tent around the individual.

The covering was perforated with tiny holes used to represent stars. The sky, the constellations and their motions could now be viewed during daylight hours. Over the next 600 years the same idea led to the making of various domes and globes for viewing the heavens above. The majority featured the same basic idea as the tent previously mentioned only the tent itself was replaced by a stationary domed building.

The first modern planetarium emerged from Germany in the in the early 20th century. In 1903, the German scholar, Oskar von Miller, began planning the German Museum in Munich. This museum was intended to celebrate the accomplishments of modern science and technology. It was also to feature a section dedicated to astronomy. Here the first modern star projector would replace forever the antiquated stationary domes of the 18th and 19th centuries.

The optical star projector as a concept is surprisingly simple. It revolves around the idea of a single globe punctured with holes to emulate the stars and their position in the sky, each hole fitted with a lens to amplify the light. A powerful bulb within the globe would therefore project the sky up on to a dome. Motors would rotate the unit so as to emulate the movement of the heavens. All of this sounds simple yet getting all the components to function together proved troublesome to its inventors.

The company responsible for the star projector's creation was the optical company Carl Zeiss located in Jena, Germany. Its creation however, as mentioned, would not be an easy task. In addition to the mechanical difficulties, the First World War and the economic crises plaguing the world at the time caused the project to be delayed for several years.

Finally in 1923 the German Museum’s planetarium powered by the Zeiss Model I projector opened to worldwide acclaim. This would become the prototype for all modern star projectors and planetariums over the ensuing 60 years.

When the Rosicrucian Planetarium opened in 1936, it included the first ever U.S.-built star machine designed and constructed by H. Spencer Lewis, and a team of engineers and scientists here at Rosicrucian Park. Regularly scheduled “star shows” began.

Today we have a modern Spitz projector powering our shows. Our Spitz system 512 projector is capable of projecting more then 1,300 stars onto the dome. The star machine also features latitudinal, daily, annual and precessional motions for the demonstration of various celestial phenomena. This model is in fact one of the most widely used in the world being installed in over 150 planetariums worldwide.

For over 70 years our Planetarium has faithfully served the community by bringing the wonders of the cosmos alive. Please feel free to join us for our current planetarium show The Mithraic Mysteries. This show plays daily at 2:00 pm with an additional showing at 3:30 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. In addition to our show the planetarium is also home to the Rosicrucian Welcome Center, a fascinating exhibit on the history of Rosicrucian Park.

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