Blessed be the one who brings the wonders of the cosmos to the multitude: Armand Neustadter Spitz and his planetarium projectors, part 1

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Armand Neustadter Spitz. Hilaire Cuny, “Sciences et techniques – La plus gigantesque tentative de notre temps: La conquête de l’espace cosmique.” Combat, 15 May 1957, 6.

Greetings, my reading friend. I have a question for you. Have you ever seen a planetarium show? My fogged-up mind tells me I have but it has no recollection of where or when that experience took place. Memory is a fickle thing, as you well know. The harder one tries to remember something or other, the greater the chances that whatever comes out of the exercise will differ significantly from what really took place. Adding in the mix someone whose only wish is to “help” you remember often compounds the inaccuracy of the recovered memories. The number of innocent people sent to jail as a result of such efforts may be higher than we think and…

Is it not odd that our train of thought often ends up in some dark tunnel? It is odd indeed. (Hello, EP!) To paraphrase the 1985 song by Scottish-Canadian musician Lawrence Henry Gowan, humans are strange animals and we are indeed animals, like worms, sea urchins, squids, spiders, jellyfishes and dragonflies, but I digress. Back to planetariums / planetaria.

As it the case with a great many of the devices that surround us, the planetarium was not invented by a single individual who saw an apple fall from a tree, or something. Nay. A certain pair of American brothers did not invent the airplane, for example, back in 1903. They developed a control system which combined wing warping with a rudder and that was that. A crucially important that, mind you, which led to the first controlled and sustained flight of a powered aeroplane, in December 1903, by Wilbur Wright (260 metres (852 feet) in 59 seconds, which gave an average speed of less than 16 kilometres/hour (less than 10 miles/hour)).

Previous flights made that day were little more than hops.

Interestingly enough, said pair of brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, did not actually invent wing warping. Nay. An American aviation pioneer by the name of Edson Fessenden Gallaudet had done that back in 1896-98. He had even tested the idea with a kite. Gallaudet did not patent his idea, however, but the Wright brothers certainly did. And no, they were seemingly not aware of Gallaudet’s pioneering work.

You will of course know when the Wright brothers made the first of many appearances in our pontificating blog / bulletin / thingee. August 2018, you say (type?), my reading friend. Very good, and back to our story. Almost.

The end result of the patent action launched by the Wright brothers was the 1909-17 patent war, a legal conflict which hobbled the American aircraft industry at a time when military needs led to great progress in Europe and… Another dark tunnel. Sorry. Back to planetariums. Again.

A planetarium is an enclosed space built primarily for presenting educational and / or entertaining shows about astronomy and the night sky. The dominant feature of a typical planetarium is its large semi-spherical projection screen onto which said shows are projected. Another prominent feature of a typical planetarium is its large and odd-looking projector, mounted in the centre of the enclosed space.

A digression if may. Is it me or does the head of the Excalbian Yarnek look more than a tad like one of the two spheres of a typical early generation planetarium projector? You have no idea of what I am talking (typing?) about, do you? Sigh… Yarnek was one the characters of a March 1969 episode of Star Trek – incidentally one of the worst episodes of that world-famous American television series actually, a series mentioned several / many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since August 2017. End of digression.

Before I forget, today’s article in our fantabulastic blog / bulletin / thingee is brought to you by a photograph that yours truly found in Combat, a very interesting daily published in Paris, France. Stemming from a family of newspapers founded clandestinely in 1941, during the Second World War, in occupied and non-occupied France, Combat published its first issue under that title in August 1944. Long considered a political and polemical daily representing the various currents of the non-Communist French left, Combat’s formula was broadened in 1953. A new direction indeed gave an important place to performances, literary criticism and the arts. Combat’s last issue came out in August 1974.

In turn, the author of the article was / is Hilaire Cuny (1913-2003), a well-known French writer and communicator / populariser. And back to planetariums we go.

Planetariums as we know them in 2022 did not exist, at least not on planet Earth, when Armand Neustadter Spitz was born, in July 1904, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He joined the student body of the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, in September 1922, before switching to the student body of the University of Cincinnati, in… Cincinnati, Ohio, in September 1924. Spitz left that educational institution in the spring of 1926, without ever obtaining a degree in… whatever he had studied.

Soon after, Spitz began to work as a journalist, more specifically as a district reporter for a small newspaper. Spitz really liked that job. Indeed, he began to ponder the possibility of owning a small newspaper. In 1928, Spitz realised his dream. He bought the Haverford Township News, a small Brookline, Pennsylvania, newspaper whose staff he had joined a triple of months before. The new owner, publisher and editor focused on community activities. Indeed, he participated in various community activities. As the Great Depression hit and worsened, Spitz found it more and more difficult to keep himself and his newspaper afloat, however. He and the Haverford Township News had to declare bankruptcy in 1932. He and it were by no means the only individual or firm to do so.

Broke and jobless, Spitz got a job washing dishes aboard a freighter in its way to France. During the trip, a friendly officer taught Spitz the basics of celestial navigation. The latter was fascinated to such an extent that he built himself a sextant out of a water-filled dish pan, a board, and a toothpick. Astronomy was really cool, thought Spitz.

Incidentally, a sextant is a navigation instrument introduced in the 18th century. It was / is mainly used to measure the angle between the horizon and the Sun, in daytime, or another star, at night.

Sadly, Spitz’a dream of becoming a writer or correspondent based in Paris did not pan out. He boarded another ship and returned to the United States. Although Spitz seemingly had another go at journalism, in 1935, he joined the staff of Haverford College, in… Haverford, Pennsylvania, as an assistant astronomer and astronomy lecturer. Spitz really liked that job. He helped the college until 1943 or so, spreading his ever-growing passion to as broad an audience as humanly possible.

In 1935-36, after a great deal of preparatory research and over a period of quite a few days spent stinking up the kitchen of the family home, Spitz put together a 1.2 metre (4 feet) papier mâché Moon where one could see every valley, mountain, crater, etc., those on the face of our satellite visible to us, of course.

Incidentally, the first photographs of the far side of the Moon were taken in September 1959 by the Soviet probe Luna 3.

Over the months and years which followed 1935-36, Spitz took his papier mâché Moon to many schools and museums, which initially annoyed his very young daughter a great deal. You see, Verne Carlin Spitz really liked to play with that big grey marble.

Would you believe that a September 1936 issue of Science News Letter, the weekly magazine of a well-known American science popularisation organisation, Science Service Incorporated, carried a photograph on its cover of the then 5-month-old child sitting on the Moon? If I may paraphrase a well-known 1977, yes 1977, song by the English rock band The Police, baby steps are what you take, sitting on the Moon. Sorry.

As you may imagine, Spitz’s presentations and lectures did not go unnoticed. Indeed, he became a bit of celebrity, as did his Moon. Relatively affordable to make ($ 15 or so, or almost $ 400 in 2022 Canadian currency, as far as the original Moon was concerned), the large model was widely copied, with varying degrees of success. The original, on the other hand, eventually went on permanent display, for a time, at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the oldest (1812) natural science research institution and museum in the Americas.

In 1935, Spitz offered his services as a volunteer publicity writer for the oldest (1824) and foremost science and technology centre in the United States, Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. He was first called upon the following year. Spitz’s public relation work was so successful that he went on to fulfil a variety of positions at the institute:

- editor of The Franklin Institute News, from 1936 to 1943,

- founder and director of the department of meteorology, from 1940 (?) to 1947,

- assistant director of public relations, from 1941 to 1943,

- director of education, from 1941 to 1953, and

- lecturer at the institute’s Fels Planetarium, from 1942 to 1955.

The Franklin Institute was of course named after a truly remarkable American writer, statesman, scientist, publisher, printer, political philosopher, inventor and diplomat, Benjamin Franklin.

Getting though the door of the Fels Planetarium proved especially challenging given Spitz’s lack of a university education. The efforts he put through proved to be worthwhile, however. In more than a decade, Spitz delivered more than 1 001 lectures on a variety of topics.

The management of the Franklin Institute realised early on that radio and, later, television could be of great help in its educational work. Spitz did more than his share of talks and presentation in these media. Some of these were only broadcasted locally but others caught the ear of people across the United States. Spitz’s first radio show, My Stars, on what was visible in the heavens, was seemingly on the air (each week?) between 1935 and 1942, when the United States’ entry in the Second World War caused the end of a number of radio programs.

Eager to spread his passion for stars, Spitz began to work on a simple astronomy book which could be understood by school age children. Said book would provide them with basic facts and some cool stories. It would also help them locate and identify the most visible stars and constellations. This was done in a most ingenious way, through the use of a series of stars patterns included in the book.

To see a particular corner of the sky, a child or adult simply had to remove from the book the page with the appropriate pattern. She or he then pricked holes in the pattern, where the stars were located, cut out the pattern from the page and bent the piece of paper to form, well, something which looked a bit like a very large and thin Jamaican patty. Putting that “pinpoint planetarium” in front of a light in a darkened room duplicated the appearance of the particular corner of the sky the child or adult was interested in. Easy peasey.

Spitz’s The Pinpoint Planetarium was published in early 1940. Would you believe that the name of its illustrator was… G. Carter Morningstar? Some people seemingly thought that this moniker was a pen name. Incidentally, that graphic artist did a number of things for the Franklin Institute during the 1930s.

As you may well imagine, intact copies of The Pinpoint Planetarium are as rare as an honest “feel free to choose a profession you abhor” and very, very collectable. This being said (typed?), an American publisher had the good idea to publish a reprint of that most interesting book in 2021.

Would you believe that the Franklin Institute and Spitz were pioneers of educational television? Yea. Of Shoes and Ships went on the air in 1941. Although affected by the United States’ entry in the Second World War, the first science education television show in the Americas, if not the world, remained on the air until 1946.

You knew of course, me erudite reading friend, that the words Of shoes — and ships were / are from a line in a poem written by English author, mathematician and poet Lewis Carroll, born Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. And yes, The Walrus and the Carpenter was recited to Alice (Liddell?) by two denizens of Wonderland, Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

As he developed a series exhibits on meteorology not too long after, Spitz thought that a simple book on that topic, one that school age children could understand, would be a good idea. Working in cooperation with Sarah Marjorie Jordan, born Irvine, I think, he co-authored A Start in Meteorology: An Introduction to the Science of the Weather, published in 1942.

Interestingly, the book contained a very neat thing, besides all the adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions, forenames, last names, nouns, pronouns and verbs of course, namely a piece of specially-treated paper built into the cover which changed colour according to the level of humidity in the surrounding air.

Quite possibly as early as early 1943, Spitz acted as a lecturer in meteorology and celestial navigation at the Franklin Institute’s brand-new Air-Mar Navigation Schools which provided training on marine and aerial navigation to young Americans serving in the armed forces.

Would you believe that Spitz’s weather-oriented work, from exhibits to lectures, led to creation, in 1940 (?), of a meteorology department within the walls of the Franklin Institute? And yes, Spitz was the founding director of said department.

By 1944, things were going well enough, Second World War-wise, to allow for the launch of a weekly radio program by the Franklin Institute. Born out of a suggestion made by a district superintendent of Philadelphia’s public schools who happened to be Spitz’s mother-in-law, Science Is Fun highlighted scientific events, significant anniversaries and ongoing events at the institute and Fels Planetarium. A widely acclaimed program, Science Is Fun soon became part of Philadelphia’s public-school curriculum aimed at grades 3 to 6. Spitz was a regular contributor to the series. He also wrote a teachers’ guide.

From early 1945 onward, if not earlier, Spitz worked on a weekly radio program for Philadelphia’s high school students in cooperation with the director of the Fels Planetarium, Dr. Roy Kenneth Marshall. Great Moments in Science may not have remained on the air very long, however.

With the return of peace, Spitz broadened his horizon a tiny bit. He was indeed very busy around 1946-47. Spitz spent some time in Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, as a science education consultant for the United States Department of Education. As well, he played a role in the creation of Science Associates Incorporated, an American distributor of amateur astronomical and meteorological equipment. Spitz also played a role in the creation of the Amateur Weathermen of America, an organisation whose main goal was to provide local, dare one say (type?) almost personalised weather forecasts.

One of Spitz’s most significant if not frequently mentioned accomplishments took place in May 1950. Working in cooperation with the aforementioned Science Service, Spitz coordinated and conducted the first National Science Fair, which was held, of course, at the Franklin Institute.

Incidentally, Canada’s first National Science Fair was held in Ottawa, Ontario, at Carleton University, in May 1962.

And now for the moment you have been waiting for, the moment, that is, when, this endless pontification begins to deal with the core topic of today’s article: planetarium projectors. Well, almost. You see, my reading friend, your time is up and you will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, have a drink, prune juice or turnip juice perhaps, and reeelax.


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Rénald Fortier