October 28, 2013
The Last Spitz B on Earth
One of the curses of insatiable curiosity is that one’s interest is rarely fully appeased. One summer I had the rare good fortune of slacking that intellectual thirst and killing various birds with one academic workload over a summer session at Queens College.
I was an undergraduate student at Yeshiva University, eager to finish my Bachelor’s degree. By studying the rule booklet and some smooth talking I was able to get approval to fulfill a science course requirement by taking an astronomy course and a humanities requirement by taking Greek Mythology, two topics which interested me immensely and were not offered at YU, but were offered at Queens that summer. It was a period that cemented my enjoyment and appreciation for both subjects.
So it was with great joy that upon visiting our local zoo this Sunday we discovered they also sported an old but fully functional planetarium. The building was a timeworn but stately round structure of elegant stone and masonry with a bust of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first cosmonaut, gracing the entrance. As we sat in the dark theatre in our reclining plastic chairs, we looked at the large imposing projector system. It reminded me of the projectors I remembered from decades ago as opposed to the new digital systems. Upon closer inspection we noticed the nameplate. It announced “SPITZ” in big white letters etched into a black metal plate. Below the name followed “Model B” in a somewhat smaller font. This was cause for great celebration, excitement and picture-taking.
The show started and we enjoyed an explanation of the southern sky of our world, a major part of which was completely unfamiliar to me. I could finally relate to the science fiction cliché of being on a different planet when looking at the night sky.
After the presentation, not able to help myself, I approached the lecturer and informed him of my name connection to the projection system. He proudly stated that Montevideo has this system since 1955 and it is the last one of its kind in use in the world. We then discussed some of the differences between the north and south skies with the commonality of the zodiac constellations for both hemispheres.
Upon my return home I couldn’t resist doing a little more research on the Spitz Model B. It was an incredible feat of engineering (and still very impressive, accurate and functional almost 60 years later), designed and built by Armand Spitz of Spitz, Inc. Below is a brief description from a Michigan planetarium for my astronomy and techie buddies out there:
To most people, the “planetarium” means a room or building containing a projector for reproducing the skies and the meaning now has become accepted. Originally, however, the word referred only to the projection instrument itself. The projector in the Robert T. Longway Planetarium was a Spitz Model B, the first to go into operation in North America. Designed and built by the Spitz Laboratories of Yorklyn, Delaware, the dumbbell- shaped instrument was 11 ½ feet long and weighed slightly over half a ton. It was suspended from the dome by four steel aircraft cables and anchored to the floor by four similar cables.
The Spitz Model B planetarium projector also contained many small auxiliary projectors designed to work together to reproduce the skies and the motions of the Sun, Moon, stars, the Earth and other planets and objects with reality and completeness as seen with the unaided eye. The Spitz Model B was capable of reproducing 3,083 stars in their proper relative brightness’s.
Among the 3,083 stars shown, the 54 of magnitude 2.0 and brighter were projected by individual lens systems; the rest are produced by tiny holes on the 36-inch star globes. The hole was only 0.0135 inch in diameter for a 5.8 magnitude star, the faintest shown. Realistic sharpness of the star images is achieved by using the concentrated brilliance of a zirconium-arc lamp.
The projector could simulate the astronomical phenomena of an entire day in as little as one minute, and it can run through a year in 12 seconds. Demonstrations could be given of solar and lunar eclipses, different forms of the aurora borealis, comets and meteor showers. Of particular value in teaching astronomy and navigation, were special projectors for sky co-ordinates.
A versatile sound system complemented the projection instrument in the presentation of planetarium shows. There were 16 speaker systems spaced around the planetarium chamber. With the speaker systems and dual turntables, the lecturer at the console could produce stereophonic sound or cause the sound to move in a circle around the chamber.
The giraffes, camels, hippos, monkeys, swarming frog tadpoles, local snakes, skunks, free-roaming peacocks and the various assortments of zoo animals were entertaining and educational as usual, but the highlight of the zoo visit for me was to learn from the last Spitz B on earth.