Adler Planetarium

Atwood: A Centennial Celebration

The zipper and the assembly line turn one hundred years old this year, and are still going strong. The same holds for one of the Adler’s popular exhibits, the Atwood Sphere. I had the opportunity to go aboard recently with two different groups, one consisting of five elementary school students with their teacher, the other two couples each celebrating 60 years of marriage. Despite their very different life experiences, their reactions were quite similar: both groups told some personal stories about viewing the sky, marveled at the simplicity of the experience, and left with broad smiles of enjoyment.

I’m also fond of the Atwood Sphere, perhaps because my first assignment at the Adler (in 1996) was to develop and implement a plan for putting it on display as part of Adler’s comprehensive expansion at the end of the last millennium. One of the most challenging tasks was figuring out how to make it universally accessible, but getting the long screw (that moves the carriage) into the building was even harder. While being moved down the stairs, the screw starting swaying from its supports, and nearly crushed a staff member (who recently retired as president). That screw was designed and made by a firm in Ontario that designed some of the mass production facilities at the Saturn car company, a fitting coincidence because of the name and the connection to 1913 innovations.

The Atwood Sphere still measures 17-ft in diameter, although we’re not sure it now has exactly 692 star holes. Some holes were plugged, and many had to be re-drilled during the last restoration. Just as the original audiences on June 5, 1913 were enthralled by the 500 lb, 1/64th in. thick stainless steel globe, today’s visitors enjoy watching and hearing it rotate.

This summer, we developed an exhibition, Planetary Machines, from the Adler’s collections to highlight the Atwood’s centennial and our new Grainger Sky Theater show Cosmic Wonder. This presentation displays some extraordinary machines that demonstrate the wonders of the heavens. It includes the world’s first tabletop planetarium, built by clockmaker George Graham c. 1705, as well as other devices for teaching private or public audiences about the mysteries of the cosmos. An eighteenth-century image by Joseph Wright of Derby best captures the feeling of enchantment felt then, and still felt today, by learners of all ages.

Today, the Atwood is just a few steps away from the world’s most advanced planetarium system; both rightly enjoy great popularity. We invite you to visit each planetarium, and to enjoy the unique experience each one provides!

Written by Dr. Marvin Bolt, vice president for Collections at the Adler Planetarium. 


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