Blessed be the one who brings the wonders of the cosmos to the multitude: Armand Neustadter Spitz and his planetarium projectors, part 2

A Spitz planetarium projector at the Planetario Municipal Agrimensor Germán Barbato, the first planetarium in South America, inaugurated in 1955, Montevideo, Uruguay, February 2015. Fedaro via Wikimedia.

Greetings, and welcome to the world of planetariums.

You will remember that, in part 1 of this article of our incomparable blog / bulletin / thingee, we had gone through the early stages of the remarkable life of Armand Neustadter Spitz. Let us follow through by going through the later stages of that remarkable life, the part which concerns his contribution to the development of planetarium projectors.

Indeed, Spitz seemingly believed that a planetarium was the best teaching aid ever invented. Given this, it was a darn shame that planetarium projectors were so unaffordable. Spitz seemingly came to hold these thoughts during the second half of the 1930s. He saw firsthand the awed reaction of people young and old when they saw how the projector of the Fels Planetarium of the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, could show them the stars above like they had never seen them before. Unfortunately, there were but 6 planetariums in North America by the time the 1930s came to an end – and none of these was located in Canada.

Did you know that Canada’s first planetarium, the Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium, opened its doors in September 1960, in Edmonton, Alberta? It closed those doors in December 1983, in part because of its limited seating capacity (65 or so people). The Edmonton Space Science Centre, in… Edmonton, which welcomed its first visitors in July 1984, included a bigger and more modern planetarium. As of 2022, that science centre was of course known as the Telus World of Science Edmonton.

If you think that Canada was something of a backwater in regard to the popularisation of astronomy, and it probably was, mind you, take heart in knowing that the first planetarium in the United Kingdom opened its doors in March 1958, in London, England. It closed those doors in April 2006.

You may remember, my oh so patient reading friend, how yours truly lamented, at the beginning of the first part of this article, how my fogged-up mind told me I had seen a planetarium show but how it also had no recollection of where or when that experience took place. Well, now that I cogitate about it, I have a feeling I might have seen that show in London at some point in the 1980s. I think, but I also digress. So, back to Spitz and the late 1930s.

Aware that people were awed by planetarium shows, Spitz came to believe that he should be able to give a home version of such a show to entertain his young daughter, Verne Carlin Spitz. What he needed was a small, portable and cheap planetarium projector. Spitz began to work on a prototype around 1945. By 1946, he had something he could show to people. Spitz soon realised that an obstacle stood in the way of the commercialisation of that spherical prototype: the drilling of the many, many holes needed to show the stars in the heavens above. Drilling each hole by hand, using a template, would be time consuming while creating some sort of timesaving machine tool would cost a great deal of money.

Replacing the sphere with something which approximated a sphere might do the trick, Spitz thought. After some testing, he chose to base his planetarium projector on an icosahedron, a type of polyhedron with 20 faces. Drilling the many, many holes needed to show the stars in the heavens above in each of the flat faces needed to create a planetarium projector would be easy.

A cube is another type of polyhedron, by the way. A cube has 6 faces. By comparison, a rhombicosidodecahedron has 62.

So, had Spitz squared his circle and designed the small, portable and cheap planetarium projector of his dreams? Sadly, no. Cutting the triangular faces was not easy at all and the completed quasi sphere was not spherical enough. Spitz needed a better design.

It so happened that, through his work at the Franklin Institute and a recent affiliation with Science Associates Incorporated, an American distributor of amateur astronomical and meteorological equipment mentioned in the first part of this article, Spitz had become acquainted with a bright chap. One day, Spitz had a chat with that very nice gentleman. Albert Einstein (!) cogitated for a few moments and suggested that a type of polyhedron with 12 faces, in other words a dodecahedron, could do the trick. A grateful Spitz got to work.

Four months later, he had a prototype whose 12 easy to cut pentagonal faces were made of plastic. Putting in the correct spots the 1 000 or so holes needed to show 1 000 or so stars in the heavens above proved tricky however.

And so it was that, in 1947, Spitz presented his Model A planetarium projector at a meeting of American astronomers. He and a colleague actually demonstrated it using the dome of one of the instruments of the Harvard College Observatory. The astronomers were impressed, as were the people present at other demonstrations made thereafter.

It is worth noting that the production version of the Model A had a small electric motor which rotated the dodecahedron as required. Spitz’s planetarium projector could display the stars visible as far north as the Arctic circle and as far south as northern Australia or southern Brazil.

Before long, Spitz demonstrated the Model A to the American armed forces. Before long, again, the United States Air Force Academy, the United States Military Academy and the United States Naval Academy began to use that device in their astronomical orientation and navigation classes.

The first advertisement, a full-page advertisement in fact, came out in the October 1947 issue of a well-known American magazine, Harvard College Observatory’s Sky and Telescope. Anyone who so desired could buy a Model A from Science Associated for the sum of $ 500, in other words approximately $ 8 200 in 2022 Canadian currency, transport cost not included of course. And yes, that was peanuts compared to the price of a full-size planetarium. These things might have cost a minimum, a real minimum, of $ 250 000 back then, you know. In other words, more than $ 4 000 000 in 2022 Canadian currency.

Orders slowly began to arrive from schools, colleges and universities all over the United States. Non-American educational institutions also ordered a number of Model As of course. This being said (typed?), some foreign orders came from rather different sources. One only needs to mention the one delivered in late 1948 or early 1949 to Farouk bin Ahmed Fuad bin Ismail bin Ibrahim bin Muhammad Ali bin Ibrahim Agha, king of Egypt and the Sudan.

As the weeks turned into months, Spitz demonstrated the Model A in a variety of venues, including his home and, on at least one occasion, the interior of an airliner.

The use of said home as a demonstration venue was understandable given the homey if not shoestring nature of Spitz Laboratories Incorporated, the little firm created by Spitz and 5 of his friends. Initially, each Model A dodecahedron was pretty much hand made.

As the months turned into years, Spitz Laboratories moved into larger and larger venues, to keep up with demand, a demand stimulated by the demonstrations performed by an enthusiastic travelling salesman. At some point in the early 1950s, as a result of that increased demand, the firm began to use metal, a more durable material, to make the pentagonal faces of the planetarium projector’s dodecahedron.

It goes without saying that Spitz improved the basic design of his projectors as time went by.

As busy as he was, Spitz came up with several effective and innovative ways to boost sales. One of the most intriguing and arguably the cutest was the sale of stars, yes, yes stars, to finance the purchase and installation of a planetarium. In exchange for $ 1, a person became the proud owner of a common star. Wealthier investors willing to cough up, say, $ 100 to $ 250 could acquire a planet. And yes, the Sun and Moon could be bought for $ 500 each. Every celestial body could be bought more than once, of course. Would you believe that several Spitz planetarium projectors were bought through such sales of celestial bodies?

Given the litigious nature of the average American, the absence of civil suits following the numerous sales which concerned Mars, the Moon or the Sun is quite surprising, and… Yes, my reading friend, that was a weak attempt at humour.

The first Spitz planetarium projector in Canada was the one presented to McMaster University of Hamilton, Ontario, in November 1949, by the Hamilton Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC), with the understanding that the latter would have reasonable access to it. Spitz himself was the main speaker at the event held at the university. Would you believe that, until September 1952, the dome used in conjunction with the projector was a… $ 20 parachute hung from the ceiling of a classroom? I kid you not. A corrugated cardboard dome supported by a wooden frame and mounted inside another classroom was in use between September 1952 and October 1954, when a purpose-designed and built planetarium, albeit a still small one, was inaugurated in a brand-new building.

Would you believe that a second Spitz planetarium projector was presented to McMaster University in May 1960, this time by the Junior League of Hamilton, an organisation of women known in 2022 as the Junior League of Hamilton-Burlington and a member of the Unites States-based Association of Junior Leagues International Incorporated?

As of 2022, the W.J. McCallion Planetarium operated by the Department of Physics and Astronomy of McMaster University was still very active. This planetarium bore / bears the name of William James McCallion, dean of the School of Adult Education and professor of mathematics at McMaster University, and founder of the planetarium located within the walls of that institution.

Mind you, a Spitz projector could also be found in the small planetarium inaugurated in 1964 in the basement of a building on the campus of the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Burnaby, British Columbia. That projector was still operational as of 2022.

Before I forget, you may be pleased to learn, or not, that the projector of the aforementioned Queen Elizabeth II Planetarium was manufactured by Spitz Laboratories.

Yours truly would not be surprised to learn that other Spitz planetarium projectors made their way to Canada over the years.

In 1954, Harmonic Reed Corporation, an American firm which produced musical instruments and toys, began to produce one of the most, if not the most widely available planetarium projector in human history. From the looks of it, the owner of Harmonic Reed, Thomas “Tom” Liversidge, approached Spitz to discuss an idea he had. The latter thought that the very small planetarium projector Liversidge had in mind, designed as it was for elementary and / or high school students, was well worth developing. Thus encouraged, the latter designed said projector with the help of his staff, especially his chief machinist, Hanz Lingenfeld, using a patent owned by Spitz as a starting point.

A pair of hand made prototypes on display at the 1954 edition of the American Toy Fair in New York City, New York, did not go unnoticed, which was a tad scary given that Harmonic Reed had yet to figure out how to mass produce its new creation.

The Spitz Junior Planetarium, as it would be known, consisted of a black 18 or so centimetre (7 inches) plastic sphere with 300 or so tiny holes, one per star, mounted on a plastic base plugged into a wall socket. In spite of its diminutive size, the Spitz Junior Planetarium was quite sophisticated. It could project both northern and southern hemisphere stars for each month of the year. An informative and well-illustrated 32-page booklet, written by Spitz, How To Use, Have Fun With, and Learn From the Spitz Junior Planetarium, explained to operate this ingenious projector which initially sold for $ 14.95, which was not exactly cheap. As you well know, my financially savvy reading friend, that sum of money was equivalent to approximately $ 200 in 2022 Canadian currency.

In the early 1960s, it seemed, Harmonic Reed commercialised a simpler and cheaper battery-powered version of its tiny planetarium projector, known as the Portable Junior Planetarium.

In addition, Harmonic Reed manufactured a number of specially-equipped Spitz Junior Planetariums, which came with a 3 or so metre (10 feet) aluminium and canvas projection dome, for use in schools.

Would you believe that Harmonic Reed produced more than 1 000 000 Spitz Junior Planetariums, all versions included, between 1954 and 1972 or so? Wow…

Building up on the success of that product, Harmonic Reed set up the Junior Planetarium Association no later than April 1955. The first president of that association was none other than Wallace Maynard “Wally” Cox, an American actor and comedian known to millions of young Americans. You see, Cox played Robinson J. Peepers, the shy, mild-mannered and beloved science teacher of a junior high school in the very popular television situation comedy Mister Peepers, broadcasted between July 1952 and June 1955. In real life, Cox was, you guessed it, an amateur astronomer.

It has been suggested that the Junior Planetarium Association had, at one point, thousands, if not tens of thousands of members in the United States and 10 or so other countries, including Canada.

In 1955, Harmonic Reed commercialised a device similar in size and appearance to its planetarium projector. The Sky Zoo was not used to duplicate the vault of heaven, however. Nay. It was designed to project the images of 35 or so constellations. Spitz wrote the instruction booklet, entitled Tales of Two Skies. Sadly enough, the Sky Zoo was a commercial flop. Harmonic Reed produced less than 2 000 of them. Worse still, many Sky Zoos allegedly ended up in a landfill. The few surviving examples are now collectors’ items.

It is worth noting that Harmonic Reed seemingly sold a number of Sky Zoo spheres which could be placed on the base of a Spitz Junior Planetarium.

It goes without saying that the Spitz Junior Planetarium was available for sale in Canada. Only needs to mention that the Montréal, Québec, branch of the largest department store chain in Canada and a firm mentioned in January 2019 and June 2020 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee, had some for sale, in its toy section, no later than July 1954. The name of that chain? T. Eaton Company Limited, of course. In Ottawa, Ontario, a well-known department store, A.J. Freiman Limited, had a number of Spitz Junior Planetariums on the shelves of its book section no later than October 1954. The small planetarium projector sold for $ 14.95, in other words more than $ 150 in 2022 Canadian currency.

Spitz undoubtedly played a crucial role in popularizing astronomy during the Cold War years.

Indeed, the first travelling planetarium on planet Earth seemingly leapt into action in 1950, the year during which many people feared that the Cold War could become a hot war, following the outbreak of the Korean War, in June. That travelling planetarium was the Boston Museum of Science’s Little Planetarium.

A well-known American actor, adventurer and inventor of the music circus, a revolutionary type of summer theatre whose scene was a circus-style big top, went one better in 1958. Saint John Terrell and his small team took their Astrotarium to numerous shopping centres and department stores in several states. The shows presented in the 200 or so seat inflatable planetarium dome anchored in parking lots until at least 1960 were a source of delight for people who had never seen such a thing before.

The main reason for that project could be spelled in one word: Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, launched in October 1957. And yes, that is actually 8 words and 1 date, my smart-alecky reading friend. Sigh… The things one has to put up with to enlighten humankind… And I am not even getting paid for this, but I digress.

Incidentally, Sputnik I was mentioned many times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since February 2018.

Both the Little Planetarium and Astrotarium attracted the attention of print, radio and television journalists. That free publicity was most welcome.

Incidentally, Terrell’s idea seemingly remained dormant until the late 1960s. From that on, a few American distributors of educational equipment began to offer inflatable planetariums to anyone interested in acquiring one. And yes, inflatable planetariums were still available for sale as of 2022.

Spitz’s expertise in the popularisation of science made him a shoe in for the 5-year education consultant position he occupied at the National Science Foundation (NSF) from 1956 onward. The following year, he joined the governing committee of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), a position he occupied for 8 years.

By the way, the NSF was / is an independent agency of the American government which supported basic research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering. The AAAS, in turn, was / is an American non-profit organisation whose purpose was to promote cooperation among scientists, protect scientific freedom, encourage scientific responsibility, and support scientific education and scientific outreach throughout this crazy world of ours.

As you may well imagine, the space race initiated by launch of Sputnik I propelled Spitz’s in yet another direction. Soon after that satellite was fired into orbit, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, a research institute of the Smithsonian Institution, and Harvard College Observatory contacted Spitz to see if he would be interested in helping to coordinate a satellite location program launched in 1956.

Known by several monikers, that is Operation Moonwatch, Project Moonwatch and Project See-Saw, the program in question supervised the work of thousands of American and non-American amateur astronomers and interested citizens from all walks of life. Spitz readily agree to supervise the program, which soon acquired a new moniker, Spitz’s Sputnik Spotters.

And yes again, the Smithsonian Institution was mentioned several / many times in our you know what since April 2018.

As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Spitz remained as active as ever. Between 1961 and 1963, for example, he gave lectures on science education to several groups of New York City, New York, teachers. Spitz also wrote the script of a self-contained educational and entertainment display on radio astronomy, Window on the Universe, located in the West Virginia State Pavilion of the site of the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair, a universal exhibition not recognised by the Bureau international des expositions of Paris, France. And yes, he wrote a number of articles for American magazines.

In the early 1960s, Spitz supervised the launch of a new and greatly improved planetarium projector, the Model A3P, which became the most popular device of its type ever. Would you believe that close to 1 000 Model A3Ps installed in close to 1 000 planetariums delighted crowds for decades?

What turned out to be Spitz’s last major project was the Space Transit Planetarium projector of the Museum of Science and Natural History of Miami, Florida. The planetarium on that site welcomed its first visitors in November 1966. Said projector, controlled by a computer, the first to be so controlled in the world, was able to reproduce what a person would see if she or he was standing on the surface of any planet or moon of the solar system – or floating in space in any location within that same system.

The accuracy of the projector was such that American astronauts James Alton McDivitt and Edward Higgins White II used it to familiarise themselves with what would be visible through the windows of their space capsule, Gemini IV, launched and recovered within the space of about 98 hours, in June 1965. And yes, the name of the McDonnell Gemini capsule was / is pronounced Gemi-knee, and not Gemin-eye.

Spitz retired as head of Spitz Laboratories around 1963-64. McGraw-Hill Publishing Company Incorporated, the second largest publishing house in the United States, acquired the assets of the firm in July 1967.

Spitz left this world in April 1971. He was only 66 years old.

Spitz’s remarkable legacy lives on, however. Spitz Incorporated, a subsidiary of Cosm Incorporated, an American firm specialising in the delivery of immersive sports, science, entertainment and education experiences in a variety of venues, was still very active as of 2022. Nowadays, it appears to supply planetarium domes rather than the projectors used therein.

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Rénald Fortier