Adler Planetarium

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History of the Adler

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The Adler Planetarium — America's First Planetarium — was founded in 1930 by Chicago business leader Max Adler. The museum is home to three full-size theaters, extensive space science exhibitions, and one of the world's most important antique astronomical instrument collections on display. The Adler is a recognized leader in science education, with a focus on inspiring young people, particularly women and minorities, to pursue careers in science.


1930: America's First Planetarium

The Adler Planetarium as it looked in 1930.
First ticket ever sold.

First ticket ever sold.

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Since ancient times, humankind has looked to the heavens with awe and wonder. A sense of curiosity inspired a search for understanding of the patterns of motion and changes in the paths of the Moon, Sun, and planets. Throughout history many attempts were made to create models to illustrate the relationship between celestial bodies.

It was not until 1923, however, that Walther Bauersfeld, Ph.D., the scientific director of the firm of Carl Zeiss in Jena, Germany, designed an optical projection device that effectively created the illusion of a night sky. Using light produced by an intricate machine at the center of a hemispherical room, he could project images of celestial objects onto the inner surface of a dome. With this innovation the modern planetarium was born.

In 1928, Max Adler, a senior officer and early stockholder in Sears, Roebuck and Company, decided to invest part of his fortune in a public facility that would benefit future generations of Chicagoans. He learned of the mechanism that could dramatically replicate the night sky that was being demonstrated in Europe and was intrigued enough to personally investigate this instrument. Accompanied by his wife and architect Ernest Grunsfeld, he went to Germany and was so impressed that he donated the funds to construct the first modern planetarium in the Western Hemisphere.

When the Adler Planetarium was opened to the public on May 12, 1930, Mr. Adler explained the reasons for his decision to build it:

"Chicago has been striving to create, and in large measure has succeeded in creating, facilities for its citizens of today to live a life richer and more full of meaning than was available for the citizens of yesterday. Toward the creation of such opportunities I have desired to contribute. The popular conception of the Universe is too meager; the Planets and the stars are too far removed from general knowledge. In our reflections, we dwell too little upon the concept that the world and all human endeavor within it are governed by established order and too infrequently upon the truth that under the heavens everything is inter-related, even as each of us to the other."

In a further demonstration of foresight, Mr. Adler also acquired an impressive collection of historical artifacts in astronomy, navigation, time keeping, and engineering. These instruments formed the basis of a collection that has come to be regarded as the finest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere and one of the three most complete collections in the world.

Mr. Adler made an agreement with the South Park Commissioners (later the Chicago Park District) to maintain and operate the museum. Philip Fox, Ph.D., a well-known professor of astronomy at Northwestern University, was appointed the first director.


1950-1968: Years of Change

Zeiss projector

Zeiss projector

Max Adler died in 1952, but he had lived to witness nearly a quarter century of planetarium success. Other members of his family continued to maintain an interest in the museum, especially his son Robert - who formed the Chicago Planetarium Society in the mid-1950s. Mr. Adler served as the Society president until 1968.



The beginnings of the space race and dramatic new discoveries in astronomy in the late 1950s and early 1960s demanded that all planetariums review their programs and plans for the future. In 1967, with the encouragement of the Chicago Planetarium Society, Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed a committee chaired by Hale Nelson to review the status of the Adler Planetarium and to make recommendations for the future.

Their report called for the creation of a Board of Trustees to share responsibility for the management of the institution with the commissioners of the Chicago Park District. It also recommended strengthening the professional staff and expanding and modernizing the entire education program. The Adler accomplished these goals by refurbishing the building and replacing the original Zeiss projector with a new Mark VI Zeiss unit.


1968-1991: Years of Expansion

Director Joe Chamberlain shows a preliminary sketch for the design of the Adler addition, c. 1970.

Director Joe Chamberlain shows a preliminary sketch for the design of the Adler addition, c. 1970.

Joseph M. Chamberlain, Ed.D., formerly Director of the American Museum-Hayden Planetarium in New York City, accepted the invitation to come to Chicago in 1968 as director of the Adler Planetarium to help implement the recommendations of the Mayor's committee. A new $4 million underground facility was opened to the public on May 12, 1973, the Adler's forty-third birthday. In 1976, the Board of Trustees assumed full management responsibility, but continued to receive support from the Chicago Park District.

In 1977, the Doane Observatory was opened. In March of 1991, the museum unveiled the results of a $6.5 million renovation project. New additions included the Stairway to the Stars special-effects sky show escalator, a Planetarium Cafe, the History of Astronomy Research Center, and a Sky Show Production Suite.

After 23 years of leadership during which he firmly established the Adler Planetarium as one of Chicago's major cultural institutions, Dr. Chamberlain retired in 1991.


1991-1999: Launching into the Millennium

In 1991, Knappenberger helped create a vision for the Adler at the turn of the millennium and initiated a Long-Range and Strategic Plan to transform the Adler. The goal was to become the world's leading public center for interpreting the exploration of the Universe.

Throughout the 1990s the Adler evolved as an institution, using audience research and evaluation techniques to produce eleven planetarium shows, expand educational programming, and develop over a dozen permanent and temporary exhibitions. This decade also welcomed the beginning of a volunteer program in 1993, the Adler Council and its Celestial Ball in 1994, and the launch of Adler's website in 1995.



In June 1996, the Adler made its own astronomical news when it publicly announced the building expansion project at the annual Celestial Ball. On February 25, 1997, the Adler celebrated the groundbreaking ceremony for the central component of this new vision: a facility expansion project culminating in the Sky Pavilion, an architecturally striking addition to the existing 1930s landmark structure on Chicago's lakefront.



Less than two years later, on January 8, 1999, the 60,000 square foot Sky Pavilion opened to the public. The new addition featured four new exhibition galleries, including the historic Atwood Sphere, a telescope terrace, a lakefront restaurant and the world's first StarRider Theater, a compelling virtual environment in which audiences can actively explore the Universe. The critically acclaimed architecture of the Sky Pavilion was conceived by Lohan Associates of Chicago and artfully combines history with contemporary design.



The renovation of the original 1930s building reached completion October 1, 1999. The renovated space contained two new gift shops, the Gateway to the Universe and History of Astronomy Galleries, along with the refurbished Sky Theater, completing the $40 million renovation project.




2000-2010: To Cyberspace and Beyond

Bronze sundial entitled, "Man Enters the Cosmos," designed by Henry Moore in 1980.

Bronze sundial entitled, "Man Enters the Cosmos," designed by Henry Moore in 1980.

Planet Explorers

Planet Explorers

The Grainger Sky Theater

The Grainger Sky Theater

In 2001, the Center for Space Science Education opened at the Adler with the help of NASA. The center includes the CyberSpace Learning Center, which combines a distance learning broadcast studio, multi-unit computer classroom, and an exhibition gallery offering daily updates from NASA.

The Adler opened a new permanent exhibition, Bringing the Heavens to Earth, in 2002. Visitors learn how cultures around the world have explained and utilized the movement of the stars. Aliens at the Adler kicked off 2003, which was themed around the possibilities of life on other worlds. Two new sky shows, Search for Alien Worlds and Alien Encounters, and a temporary exhibition, Stranded in an Alien Lab, invited visitors to imagine and explore the universe for other forms of life. 

On May 12, 2005, the Adler launched its 75th anniversary with a renewed commitment to academic achievement, public education, community partnerships and museum visibility. Retired NASA Astronaut James A. Lovell, Jr. served as chairman of the Adler's 75th anniversary celebration.



On May 11, 2007, the Adler unveiled its new Space Visualization Laboratory to bring the latest images of space science to the public. The museum completed a $1.1 million renovation of the Kroc Universe Theater, installing state-of-the-art technologies that enable the Adler to present 3-D shows and space visualizations.



The Adler hosted the largest-ever International Planetarium Society Conference in 2008, welcoming more than 600 participants to Chicago. 



To commemorate the International Year of Astronomy celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo's use of the telescope in studying the heavens, the Adler unveiled a special temporary exhibition, new sky shows, public observing events, and new programs in 2009.  Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass traces the evolution of these fascinating instruments and their role in on our understanding of the Universe.  The yearlong celebration provided ample opportunity to communicate the impact of astronomy on cultures over the past 400 years and spark an astronomical interest in the next generation of explorers. 



One of the Adler’s most imaginative exhibitions, Planet Explorers, was opened on March 26, 2010. Planet Explorers supports the institution’s youngest visitors, ages 3-8, and their caregivers as they explore the world and Universe around them.

In 2011, the Adler transformed its historic Sky Theater to offer audiences the most immersive, technologically enhanced theater experience ever developed.  The Grainger Sky Theater now projects the largest single seamless digital image in the world with an ultra-high definition screen resolution of more than 8k x 8k pixels, far surpassing the cinematic standard of 2k x 4k pixels.  The transformed theater uses special floor-lighting effects and screen images that extend beyond the traditional 180-degree dome, presenting a space-simulation environment surpassed only by actual space travel.