Found on a particularly exciting day scouring the stacks of The Curious Vault was a Spitz Model B Planetarium Star Projector circa 1954. It is approximately 14 ½ inches tall and 4 ½ inches wide. This unit was developed by Armand Spitz, a newspaperman who helped democratize the planetarium concept with affordable equipment for institutions all over America. It is a salesman’s model, for the traveling planetarium machinery dealer. Just imagining a potential 1950s man in a starched shirt and pressed pants making his living carrying around small scale samples of Planetarium hardware takes us back to a different time.
Thought it cannot be definitively said how this piece was used, it seems obvious that this model existed to garner interest in the Planetarium as it stands today, whether from a Spitz salesman, or even from the Museum sharing its future plans to the people of Miami. The machine that still functions in the present dome at the Miami Science Museum is a Spitz model STP, or “Space Transit Planetarium” which is actually a later and upgraded Spitz machine that rotated on a fourth axis from the floor instead of suspended from the ceiling like the Model B.
The building at the Museum still bears the same name as the model of the star projector – Space Transit Planetarium – that was installed in November of 1966 in Miami. The first of its kind at the time, it consists of two domes, the outer of which is poured concrete, while the inner dome is a projector screen. There is space in between for special effects machinery and storage. It is accessible, but off limits to the public.
The equipment being used is around 90 percent original from the time period, with very few upgrades aside from regular maintenance, however credit is due for the occasional ingenious adaptations by Planetarium staff members Mark Bennett and Robert Cruz that have allowed it to remain in functional condition, despite the limited access to spare parts. The operations console is also original and the whole apparatus has been in continuous duty for 50 years. Spitz made 12 of these machines at the time, and this is one of only two still left in operation. It is the first planetarium to be run on a computer. The Spitz Model B, the earlier version of which the salesman model is found in The Curious Vault, used a projector and pin-hole lighting.
The Space Transit Planetarium currently puts on three types of shows for the visiting public: a traditional star show, multimedia video and slide shows about the stars. There are also the laser shows – some that present educational content and some that are just for fun like the popular evening laser shows set to Pink Floyd or others. The star shows are a beautiful nostalgic way of seeing the sky during the day, in part because of the Spitz STP model installed in the building.
In 1966, when the Spitz STP was installed, it was NASA grade technology. Indeed there were even astronaut training sessions in the building at the time. And this is just one of the many stories that have come from the Planetarium at the Miami Science Museum over the years. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen once watched a star show lying on the floor. Musician Prince was once snuck in to the building for a private show. Current host of the famed PBS astronomy show Star Gazer James Albury was once an usher and console operator. Indeed Many members of the local community have their own personal stories of the Planetarium. What are yours? Send them to us!
When the Miami Science Museum becomes the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in 2015, there will be a new Planetarium. It will be a full dome, and digital, with all of the highest end state of the art equipment available. The spirit of the original STP will remain forever with the Museum, and Miami itself.
This post relied on the knowledge of the Miami Science Museum’s Mark Bennett and Robert Cruz.
Come visit the Space Transit Planetarium this April 6th for Planetarium: Krautrock. Artist, Curious Vault collaborator, and Science Museum Art and Collections Manager Kevin Arrow and Musician Romulo Del Castillo present an audio and visual experience on Krautrock, an umbrella term for the rock and electronic experimental music that originated in Germany in the late 1960s. Krautrock at the Planetarium is presented by Miami Art Museum and Miami Science Museum in collaboration with SPRING BREAK. The other half of The Curious Vault, Nathaniel Sandler, will be outside with Bookleggers Mobile Library giving away free books to attendees.
The Curious Vault is a bi-weekly online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of the Miami Science Museum, presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.