Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria, 1930-1970

Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria, 1930-1970

Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria, 1930-1970

Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria, 1930-1970


Every year, millions of Americans visit planetariums and are captivated by their strikingly realistic portrayal of the night sky. Today, it is indeed difficult to imagine astronomy education without these magnificent celestial theaters. But projection planetariums, first developed in Germany, have been a part of American museum pedagogy only since the early twentieth century and were not widespread until the 1960s.

In this unique social history, former planetarium director and historian of science Jordan D. Marché II offers the first complete account of the community of individuals and institutions that, during the period between 1930 and 1970, made planetariums the popular teaching aids they are today. Marché addresses issues such as the role of gender and social developments within the planetarium community, institutional patronage, and the popularization of science. He reveals how, at different times, various groups, including financial donors, amateur scientists, and government officials, viewed the planetarium as an instrument through which they could shape public understanding and perceptions of astronomy and space science.

Offering an insightful, wide-ranging look into the origins of an institution that has fascinated millions, Theaters of Time and Space brings new perspectives to how one educational community changed the cultural complexion of science, helped shape public attitudes toward the U.S. space program, and even contributed to policy decisions regarding allocations for future space research.


Audience members preparing to watch a planetarium program enter a lighted, round room and take their seats, waiting expectantly. A hemispherical screen looms above them, illuminated by soft lights around its base. At the center of the room stands an unusual-looking device, which resembles nothing they’ve ever seen before. Music emanates from every direction.

On cue, the lights fade and the stars magically appear overhead, just as they would if one were actually outside, away from lights of the city. The voice of a narrator directs viewers’ attention to objects in the sky as the program gradually unfolds. Time flows effortlessly, and the viewers are transported in their imaginations to places far out in distant space. They might be taken far back in time to witness the birth of our universe, or be swept into the future to watch the death throes of a star like our Sun. The portrayal of events achieves a sense of realism that is nearly unsurpassed.

Out-of-this-world experiences like these have long earned planetaria their high reputation among visitors of all ages. The creation of superlative illusions explains much of their popularity and success. The versatility of planetaria allows them to manipulate time and space in a theatrical sense, but ensures that such flights of fancy remain educationally sound. It is little wonder, then, that planetaria helped to initiate a broad resurgence of popular interest in astronomy during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

As theaters of time and space, planetaria have enabled the average citizen to experience the majesty of the night sky. As long as planetaria continue to reveal the mysteries of the universe, they will inspire future generations to reflect upon their lives with a newfound sense of identity and purpose.

My first experience of a planetarium program occurred in December 1968 when I was an eighth-grade student, almost a year after I became interested in astronomy. I visited the Lakeview Center for the Arts and Sciences in Peoria, Illinois, and attended its Christmas Star presentation. What has remained . . .

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