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Celebrating a Century of Visual Wonders.


of the Planetarium

Centuries ago, (tabletop) devices that displayed the movement of the planets in a mechanical way were already called Planetariums. The history of planetariums in today’s sense – projection planetariums – however, began only at the beginning of the 20th century:

Before 1923
Celestial globes and mechanical devices as precursor technologies of the star projector

The development of the projection planetarium is under the century-old influence of various models of the starry sky in the form of celestial globes (e.g. Gottorp Globe (1664), Atwood Celestial (1913)) and mechanical models of the solar system, which primarily demonstrated the motion sequences among each other (e.g. Huygens Planetarium (1682), Eisinga Planetarium (1774)). Both model variants are combined in the star projector and thus allow a geocentric view of the motion sequences in the night sky.

1923 Photo: Carl Zeiss Jena
Commissioning of the first star projector
The Mark I set up in the Deutsches Museum in Munich in 1923.

The commissioning of the first planetarium projector (ZEISS Model I) took place on September 16, 1923, and one month later it was presented to official representatives in a non-public demonstration at the Deutsches Museum. The first public presentation took place in 1924 and went down in history as "The Miracle of Jena".

1925 Photo: Deutsches Museum, München
Opening of the first projection planetarium at the Deutsches Museum in Munich
The Mark I set up in the Deutsches Museum in Munich

On May 7, 1925, the opening of the world's first projection planetarium was celebrated at the Deutsches Museum in Munich.  

From 1925 Photo: Andreas Scholl & Planetarium Barmen
Further development of existing star projector techniques by various players

The Model I from ZEISS is further developed and given a dumbbell shape. With the help of this, it is also possible to reproduce the southern hemisphere of the night sky. From 1931, other players besides ZEISS are involved in the development of their own planetarium projectors. In 1931, for example, the "star chamber" is created in a school in Lübeck (Germany) and thus also represents the first school planetarium. Further novel projector technologies are proven from 1936 onwards.

From 1925 Photo: Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Illinois
Commissioning of further projection planetariums in Europe and the world
long line waits to get into the Adler Planetarium in its opening day. The building is curved with a dome on top.

A total of 25 Model II projectors were installed by World War II in Germany, the USA, Italy, Japan, the USSR, Sweden, Belgium, France and Austria.

From 1948 Photo: Museum of Science Boston Archives
Development of first mobile projection planetariums
Traveling Planetarium Boston Museum of Science

When the old Natural History Museum downtown closed and the Museum of Science (MOS) was built, the MOS developed a "road show" to travel around the region until the new one opened. So in 1948, the first transportable planetarium was unveiled to provide projection shows in schools, libraries and churches in New England. The 18-foot (about 5 ½ meters) diameter wooden structure housed a Spitz star projector and seated 50 people. The planetarium was used by the MOS and later by a local school until 2006.

From the 1950s Sub Label
Use of additional slide projectors in the planetarium

With the use of additional slide projectors in the planetarium dome, image content not coming from the star projector itself can be displayed for the first time: Thus, non-astronomical content can now be presented on the dome in addition to astronomical displays. These could be seen as a framed square on the dome.

1960-1975 Photo: UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries
Planetariums used by NASA as training simulations
UNC-Chapel Hill Libraries

Between 1960 and 1975, more than 60 astronauts from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, as well as Skylab and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, trained at Morehead Planetarium & Science Center (North Carolina, USA). This training was necessary so that the astronauts, who often did not have much experience with constellations or astronomy, could reliably find guide stars for the flight guidance systems.

1963 Sub Label
Display of dome-filling images (Allsky's)

With the use of a fisheye lens, dome-filling images that did not come directly from a star projector could now be projected starting in 1963. Thus, with the help of full-dome images (allskys), more than just astronomical content could be shown. These first Allskys were primarily used to show natural phenomena (cloud formations, sunsets, underwater images) and thus made the planetarium a place where other natural sciences could be thematized in addition to astronomy.

Special effects projectors go commercial
Sky-Skan Europe GmbH

The first commercial projectors for special effects in planetariums were offered by SkySkan in 1968. Now effects such as moving clouds and rotating black holes no longer had to be realized with whatever was available in the dome or privately. These analog special effects projectors were still often used together with home-built projection devices - but with the help of the new techniques, a new level of special effects could be achieved that was difficult to achieve with home-built projectors.

1970 Photo: upper half: courtesy of Dave Weinrich and IPS lower half: Cité de l’espace.
Networking of planetariums on an international level

The founding of the International Society of Planetarium Educators (ISPE) symbolizes the beginning of an increasing exchange between different planetariums - not only on a hitherto rather regional level, but also across the borders of different nations. Until that time, an exchange of content was and still is challenging mainly for technical reasons, since many planetariums had among commercially sold star projectors and mainly self-built technical equipment. The ISPE was one of the forerunners of today's International Planetarium Society (IPS).

1973 Sub Label
Convergence of large-format film and planetarium

With the merging of the new IMAX Dome film technology and the classic planetarium in a common shared space, not only the nature of the presentations in the planetarium changes, but above all the architecture itself: The seats, formerly arranged in a circular pattern, are now placed in straight rows staggered in height within a sloping dome. As the first planetarium and IMAX Dome theater, the Fleet Space Theater (California, USA) marks the beginning of a convergence movement of linear feature film and interactive, live-moderated planetarium formats.

1973 Photo: Brian Wirthlin/Photon Alchemy
Show lasers make entertaining musical events possible

Ivan Dryer's "Laserium" was the first planetarium laser music show and premiered on November 19, 1973, at the Griffith Observatory Planetarium (California, USA). Unlike most planetarium events, the musical performances had no mandate to impart knowledge, but were purely entertaining. Thus, the arrival of laser systems also marked a new generation of event formats that can still be found in planetariums today.

From the 1980s Sub Label
Use of additional video projectors

The use of additional projectors in the planetarium now allows the display of additional image content as well as additional (non-astronomical) film content. These separate pieces of equipment thus expand the planetarium's presentation possibilities in a similar way to slide and special effects projectors. However, these developments also mean that in some cases up to 120 individual media devices are used in planetariums to provide a dome-filling experience.

1983 Sub Label
Digitalization of projection technology begins

The first digital projection system for planetariums, Digistar (I) by Evans & Sutherland, generates dome-filling vector graphics in real time. This allowed not only the functions of the star projector to be reproduced digitally, but also all other visual content that was conceivable using points and lines to be projected: For example, it was possible for the first time to virtually leave the geocentric view of the night sky and fly through space. Due to the used cathode ray tube the projections were monochromatic and sightly greenish.

1983 Photo: Anna Green
(Analog) Planetarium Technology Becomes Digitally Controllable

In 1983, the SkySkan company developed a digital multimedia control system for planetariums. The development from analog to digital technology in planetariums is thus advanced not only for the projection itself, but also for all other media equipment used.

From 1990s Photo: Goto Inc.
Development of digital fulldome projection

With the development of various bridge and key technologies, digital fulldome still and moving images can be shown in planetariums from the late 1990s. For this purpose, raster graphics rather than vector graphics are now used. In addition to generating classic planetarium content in real time, this also makes it possible to play linear, pre-rendered movies.

From the 2000s Photo: RSA Cosmos
increasingly widespread use of fulldome technology

Digital fulldome technology increasingly replaces (in some planetariums up to 120) individual media devices, which means that there are no longer any technical limits to visual content in planetariums. In addition, IMAX dome systems, which are sometimes installed in parallel with planetarium technology, are also being replaced by shared fulldome technology. Star projectors, however, still exist despite the digital display option and complement the fulldome technology.