Sunday, May 24, 2009


Home Dome: Stars on the Ceiling

Naw, I ain’t talking about observatory domes. I do hope to fulfill my dream in the next few years and have a dome of my own in the backyard, but that is not what is on my mind (such as it is) this morning. I’m thinking about “dome” as in “planetarium dome.” Well, not really a dome, more like the ceiling of Li’l Rod’s boyhood room. Yep, stars on the ceiling.

Just because I promised I’d leave the Pal Junior alone for a while, don’t mean I’ve given up on astro-nostalgia. As I said last time, I think about the good old days of the 60s – 70s frequently of late, as I suppose is natural for someone of my increasingly advanced years to do. OK, OK, alright already! The subject for the day is a forgotten facet of the amateur astronomy (for kids anyhow) of the 1960s, home (toy) planetariums. You know, the Spitz Junior, the Nova, the Sky Zoo, and other alluringly named gadgets that are still fondly remembered by more than a few middle-aged amateur astronomers.

The story of these fascinating gizmos is mostly the story of one man’s, Armand Spitz’s, passion for astronomy, and is an interesting one. If you want a well-written and detailed account, I commend to you Conrad Goeringer’s article, “Stars on My Ceiling” in the July 1992 issue of Sky and Telescope. Course, I do know a few of y’all weren’t even around in 1992, and if’n you were, unlike Unk, not ever’body maintains untidy and dusty stacks of countless old astronomy rags. So here’s the story in a nutshell: Armand Spitz, Director of Education for Philadelphia’s Fels planetarium wasn’t just passionate about astronomy; as you might expect for somebody with a job title like his, he was also passionate about astronomy education. One thing bothered Mr. Spitz, and became ever more a concern as the Space Age dawned in the late 40s and early 50s: most kids hadn’t a prayer of visiting a planetarium. With a Zeiss projector costing hundreds of thousands even way back when, that was no wonder. Outside the big cites few kids (or adults) were able to experience the wonders of the indoor sky.

Spitz set out to change that, and, in 1945, formed his own company, Spitz Labs, to do so. By 1947 he was demonstrating a projector, the “Model A,” he’d cobbled together that, while far less fancy than one of those monstrous and beautiful Zeiss dumbbells, worked well. No, it didn’t have a spaceship bridge control console or razor sharp projection lenses—it didn’t have any lenses at all as a matter of fact, using simple pinhole projection for its stars. It didn’t even have a real star ball; instead of expensive globes, Spitz used a single weird-looking but easier to produce dodecahedron assemblage of flat pentagon-shaped panels (a shape suggested by Albert Einstein, which shows you the sort of company Armand kept) for the projector’s single “ball.”

Your high school gym wouldn’t suddenly become the Griffith planetarium with the purchase of a Spitz, no, but the thing was functional and had a big advantage in that almost any school or museum could have a Model A. Many soon did. Armand’s company continued on to greater and greater glory even after he sold out in the 60s and retired. Today, Spitz is still around and going strong, boasting that it is a world leader in planetarium technology. It’s now more focused on things like video projection systems than traditional projectors, true, but it’s nice to see the name and business live on.

The history of Spitz’s company is really incidental to our subject, though. What is important for us is the chance meeting between Armand Spitz and the chief of a company called “Harmonic Reed.” Harmonic Reed, as you might not be surprised to learn, was vested in producing toy musical instruments and, especially, harmonicas. When its chief executive happened to sit in on one of Spitz’s demonstrations of his Model A, however, history was made. This dude, Thomas Leveridge, had an idea that turned out to be a brilliant one. Spitz's projector was basically a very simple device. Why couldn’t a toy be produced on the same general principles, but even simpler and cheaper?

The eyes of the nation’s kids were ever so slowly beginning to turn to the skies as NACA and the infant space program ginned up, and everybody was downright captivated by the spacemen and space monsters that danced across 50s movie screens and newfangled TV sets. It seemed to Mr. Leveridge that a toy planetarium projector would be a natural for a company that wanted to branch out from harmonicas and toy organs, something that wasn't exactly a growth industry any more.

Armand Spitz apparently thought this was a capital idea, and agreed to join forces with the harmonica bunch to produce a toy planetarium. There was one immediate stumbling block, though. Leveride thought, probably correctly, that a round star ball would be more attractive and appealing to kids and parents than the strange soccer-ball like assemblage of flat pentagons that was the Model A. Unfortunately, that was easier to say than do. Creating a molding machine that would form a perfect hemisphere while punching hundreds of star-holes into it turned out to be a daunting task.

Nevertheless, Harmonic’s machinist, Hans Lingenfield, persisted. Despite his persistence, however, by the time the annual New York Toy Fair, an insanely significant event for toy-makers, arrived he’d been able to fabricate a grand total of two Spitz “Juniors,” the initial name for the little projector. These two examples caused, if not a stir, at least some interest at the shindig, and when Hans cracked the star ball code shortly after, Junior went into production, where it continued for the better part of two decades to the tune of over one million projectors.

The finished product was both beautiful and functional (and today looks breathlessly retro-attractive). Yes, Tom was right about the star ball. The 7-inch glossy black (later blue) hemispheres were joined by a rubber gasket, giving Junior a futuristic Saturn/flying saucer look. The initial projector, which was powered by AC current, was equipped with a rheostat to simulate the coming of dusk and dawn, a little lighted arrow pointer for the “lecturer” to use while showing off wonders, and, possibly best of all, a 30+ page richly illustrated booklet written by Armand Spitz himself. How much for all these Good Things? Aye, there’s the rub. When Junior debuted in 1954, the price was $14.95. Depending on how you do the math, that’s roughly equivalent to $115.00 today, downright extravagant back then, escially for those of us in the lower middle class. Despite this hurdle, the Spitz Junior sold well enough that the company began to add other astronomy related products.

One of these was the Moonscope, a Gilbert reflector lookalike (prettier, though), but that is a story for another Sunday morning. Planetarium-wise, not long after the Spitz Junior hit the streets, Armand Spitz and Harmonic Reed came up with a follow-on projector, the legendary “Sky Zoo.” Rather than a star ball, the Zoo featured a sky globe emblazoned with constellation pictures. These were of the proper size to be projected over the Spitz Junior’s constellations when the Sky Zoo was set up next it.

Couldn't afford both? As an alternative to a complete Sky Zoo projector, Spitz offered just the constellation picture globe, which could be mounted on Junior in place of the star ball. Naturally, Harmonic strongly suggested parents buy the complete Sky Zoo instead. Alas, the Zoo was a humongous bust, selling no more than a couple of thousand units at best (which is why they are such collectors' items today) and was quickly discontinued. That didn’t mean you couldn’t enjoy the funky little pictures of Cassiopeia, Sagittarius and the rest, though. Following the cancellation of the Zoo, Harmonic added a little-bitty constellation picture projector and slides to the Spitz Junior. This small plastic unit fitted over the illuminated pointer in place of the arrow.

Amazingly enough, given the somewhat outré nature of the toys as compared to Slinkies or even chemistry sets, the failure of the Sky Zoo didn’t stop Harmonic and Spitz from introducing new planetarium products. One very impressive addition was an upgraded Spitz Junior aimed at schools. This advanced model featured a standard Junior to which had been added a motorized drive for the star ball and a dome illuminator. For that dome illuminator to be of any use, you naturally had to have a dome, and Spitz provided one, a 10-foot aluminum and canvas rig. At 150 smackers, the complete outfit was definitely aimed at educators; not us rugrats.

Spitz/Harmonic Reed did produce one more popularly priced variation on the Junior as the 1960s came in, the The Spitz Junior Portable. This was a somewhat simplified projector powered by D batteries rather than AC, which lacked both the rheostat (there was a “bright/dim” switch) and the constellation picture projector. It did come with a somewhat functional AA powered arrow pointer. The advantage? No AC meant it could be used anywhere, mom and pop didn’t have to worry about Bud and Sis electrocuting themselves, and it could sell for considerably less.

And that’s the way it was until the late 60s, when the changes began to come thick and fast. The stories of Spitz Laboratories and Harmonic Reed are intertwined and a little confusing, but what happened more or less is as that Armand Spitz retired in 1969, selling his company to McGraw Hill. After the Main Man’s departure, Harmonic Reed chose to spin-off the “science” part of their company. But that was not the end of their planetarium projectors. Hardly.

Not only did they continue selling the toy, which was now being called the “Nova Home Planetarium,” they came out with some much fancier projectors for sale to secondary schools, culminating in the famous Nova III, which sold for far less than anything Zeiss (or even upstart Japanese Goto) offered and did almost as much. Our little friend the Junior—err, “Nova Home Planetarium”? He struggled on until the early 70s and faded away. Why? The tenor of the times, I reckon. Following the end of Apollo and the Vietnam Hangover, most Americans, kids and adults, had had enough of space for a while. An “expensive” pinhole star projector? No way, dude. Hip 70s youth preferred pet rocks and mood rings.

My experience with the Spitz Junior goes back to the early 1960s. Oh, I may have noticed it in the Sears Wishbook (Christmas catalog) or similar a time or two in the late 50s, but it hadn’t made much of an impression. The first time I laid eyes on one and it made sense to me what the danged thing was good for was one sunny afternoon at Gayfer’s. Back in the 60s and into the 70s, almost every city of any size had a home-grown department store.

Those have long since been gobbled by the big chains, but back then our premier store, occupying a substantial portion of a block of downtown real estate, was the locally owned Gayfer’s. Mama liked to do her clothes shopping in this borderline hoidy-toidy outfit on those occasions when she could afford to—it was a little upscale for the likes of us. When she was able to visit the Big Store, she tended to park me in the toy department (perfectly safe in them days). Gayfer's collection of toys was small, e’en ‘round Christmas time, but, like the rest of the store, it was quite an upgrade compared to Woolworth’s and Kress. Well I remember staring longingly at a beautiful and gleaming Schwinn Jaguar bicycle and almost convincing myself I could have one for Christmas (I was lucky to get a Sears bike that year).

At some point, Gayfer’s had begun to display a few “science toys” in a corner. There wasn’t a Gilbert reflector, alas, but there were some mighty fancy chemistry sets. And the Spitz Junior. I suppose what initially attracted my attention was the insanely gaudy box, but the projector itself was fascinating too. Scanning Armand’s little book, which was laid out beside Junior, I finally had an epiphany: This thing would project the stars on the walls and ceiling of your room. Somehow that just seemed cool. Not only would it be outasight, I thought, to turn the Spitz on and “fly” my toy Mercury capsules around in deep space, maybe I could actually learn the names of stars and constellations with the aid of the funny looking contraption.

This was a while before the events of Stephanie’s Telescope, and I had yet to set my sights on a scope of my own, but knowing the stars and constellations seemed a worthy pursuit. Only problem? The price tag. Junior had begun at $14.95, but the price had begun to creep up before long, goin’ to $19.95 by the end of the 50s (albeit with constellation, satellite, Saturn, and Solar eclipse slides included) and topping out at 30 dollars at the end of the 60s. I don’t know what the fare was that afternoon in Gayfer’s, but it was enough to eliminate it as a birthday gift, and make it very dicey even for Christmas. Not that I didn’t put it on my list, but Sears was apparently not selling the Spitz Junior at the time, and if it didn’t come from Sears (where you could put stuff on lay-a-way, a time payment plan) Mama, Daddy, and Santa said Forget About It.

There things might have remained but for the kindness of one of my teachers. Or, actually, not one of my teachers. Miss Atkins taught at Kate Shepard Elementary, but I was not in her class, which was both fortunate and unfortunate. The teacher I had that year, Miss Stinson, was far younger and, I thought, considerably more glamourous. Unfortunately she was also a more down to earth sort than Miss Atkins.

Miss A., I understood, was, almost unbelievably, like me, obsessed by the Great Out There, and routinely treated her students to extensive space and astronomy “units.” Miss Stinson, on the other hand, was more obsessed by The New Math. I admittedly found things like “sets” purty darned fascinating, but not as fascinating as outer space, for gosh sakes. Anyhoo, one day Mama arrived home from one of her Church Circle meetings bearing a sizable box, “Miss Atkins thought you might like to borrow this for a while. She bought it for her son, but he’s off to college now.” Oh. My. God. The box festooned with its near psychedelic vistas of starry-eyed boys and girls could only contain one thing, a Spitz Junior!

Off to my room I went. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but hoped for good things. I was not disappointed. Even with the room fairly bright despite me snatching my blanket off the bed and tucking it over the windows, a flick of the switch and the stars showed up purty as could be. That was just the beginning. While I now had the Tasco 3-inch, and was beginning to be able to pick out star-patterns with some alacrity, there is no doubt the little toy helped me round-out my constellation knowledge. But that warn’t the real fun.

The real fun was writing and producing planetarium shows for the folks and my buddies. I had never been to a real planetarium, mind you, but I’d seen the Griffith scene in Rebel Without a Cause and thought I had an idea what one should be like (I did finally get to a real dome a few years later, Miami’s Space Transit Planetarium, which sported, yes, a Spitz Laboratories projector). When I was closing out the folks’ house after Mama’s passing, I hoped against hope to turn up some of my laboriously typed “scripts.” No dice, but I remember them well enough; especially what I considered my greatest triumph, The Coming of the Stars of Winter: “Behold, boys and girls, the majesty of the great hunter Orion rising in the east.” I don’t know if family and friends actually enjoyed my shows, but at least they pretended to.

It was a sad time, you betcha, when Miss Atkins finally (months later) asked for the return of Junior. I wasn’t crushed, though. I now had that other Junior, the Palomar Junior, to focus on, and contented myself with the thought that the little Spitz had served its purpose. It had helped me finish learning the sky and I had sure had a lot of fun with my shows. Oh, I did try to recreate the Spitz myself using plans for a “tin can planetarium projector” I found in Patrick Moore and Percy Wilkin’s How to Make and Use a Telescope. Cain’t say how well that might have worked (Armand Spitz made one for his daughter, I understand), since Li’l Rod, lazy then as now, gave up shortly after punching/drilling the holes for Ursa minor in the end of a coffee can. As for Spitz and company, I can’t say I thought much about ‘em over the next 30 or so years, except maybe to note that the little projectors had suddenly disappeared from Edmund’s catalogs and the toy store shelves. It was not until I had a space crazy kid of my own that I began to think of stars on the ceilin’ again.

I don’t know if she’ll ever be a real amateur astronomer (whatever the hell that is), but my daughter Lizbeth has enjoyed observing with me over the years, and went through a phase when she was about ten when, just like her old man at that age, she was fascinated by the constellations and the myths that go with them: “Daddy, my favorite constellation this week is Lyra. Do you know what a Lyre is?”

One afternoon, as Lizbeth and I were wont to do, we were inventorying the shelves of Toys ‘r Us, probably looking for one of the Polly Pockets sets which Lizbeth still enjoyed, when she emitted a very definite “DADDY, I WANT THAT!” “That” turned out to be the Space Theatre Planetarium. It was about 25 bucks, but I decided “What the hell?” Lizbeth rarely asked for expensive toys; 25 bucks was a lot less than the Spitz had been that day in Gayfer’s; and, well, just because I could. I gotta say the sight of that box showing kids and parents in ecstasy over stars on the ceiling sent a wash of memories over me not to be denied.

Lizbeth was at least as thrilled with her planetarium as I’d been with the Spitz. Me? I couldn’t help making comparisons. The Johnny-Come-Lately’s biggest shortcoming as far as I was concerned was its lack of a star ball. Instead, it used barely convex top-mounted slides to project stars that, unlike Junior’s, were displayed mostly on the ceiling. The projection admittedly looked pretty good, but not as realistic as the Spitz’s room-filling sky. As simple as the Spitz Junior was, it projected brighter stars, too. The surface of the ball was larger than that of Lizbeth’s slides, allowing the Junior’s pinholes to be somewhat bigger, letting more light through. The Space Theatre did have one significant advantage in that its slides could be changed for others—which showed, for example, only the stars of summer, etc. Not a bad little toy, but I was surprised it wasn’t better than my old friend 40 years down the road.

I slowly became aware that, far from being dead, the home planetarium, at least as a toy, seemed to be making a comeback. I began to keep my eye out for new projectors on the shelves at Toys ‘r Us and the (late, lamented) Discovery Channel Store and Ebay, even picking up a few whose price wasn’t too outrageous. One thing I noticed immediately was that while there were quite a few star projectors on sale, very few were true planetarium projectors. Most were more in the nature of celestial globes with illuminators at their centers allowing them to project black stars on a white sky. Not realistic, no, but not necessarily all bad. These projectors tend to be quite useable in less than perfectly dark rooms, and their surfaces are often emblazoned with extras like constellation labels, the ecliptic, the Celestial equator, and even a few clusters and nebulae. My example, the Star Theatre, even sports glow-in-the-dark stars and a built in compass on its base, and is quite useable as a (small) celestial globe.

I wasn’t satisfied, though. I wanted a home planetarium. For a couple of years it appeared I’d best forget that. Then the Japanese planetarium craze began. I don’t know what prompted the Japanese consumer to become interested in home planetariums, maybe the fact that from places like Tokyo it’s impossible to see all but the brightest stars and the Milky Way is forever invisible. Anyhoo, Japanese companies, and particularly Sega, began producing home projectors that are anything but toys.

Sega's Homestar series almost takes the home planetarium into the 21st century, and some models definitely take it beyond the toy category. Models? Yep. These things are so popular in the East that the company has produced at last count five distinctly different projectors, including one that floats in your bathtub and produces a starry sky to soothe you during your ablutions (!). The Sega planetariums top out with the Homestar EX(tra), which is designed for use in schools or, Sega says (don’t ask me why), in nightclubs. The EX goes for 800 dollars U.S., a rather daunting price, yeah, but the less expensive Homestar and Homestar Pro are now available to U.S. consumers for reasonable amounts thanks to that undying force in the toy bidness, Uncle Milton (the antfarm folks), with the base model projector costing just above 100 bucks.

Are these units better than the old Spitz? In some ways, yes. The Pro, for example, uses a superbright LED for projection, makin’ it much brighter than a Junior running with the rheostat pegged. They also offer niceties such as motorized sky rotation, shooting star projection, and interchangeable star slides that enable the user to see the sky with or without constellation stick figures. That’s nice, but the slides are also the weakness of these units. Like Lizbeth’s humble Space Theatre, the use of slides means the virtual sky is only on the ceiling. If you can live with that, though, you might be right happy with a Sega. It is light-years ahead of the Spitz in many ways. The stars are focused with a lens, making them oh-so-much sharper than pinhole stars, and the number of stars projected makes the Junior’s “almost 400” laughable. Including the Milky Way (yes!) the base Homestar projects 10,000 stars; the EX (not yet for sale in the U.S.) kicks that up several notches to 140,000 .

Would I spend a C-note plus on one of the Homestars? I’ve thought about it, but it seems I’ve satisfied my home dome lust in a way that probably makes me happier than even the EX would. I was browsing the eBay one afternoon as I sometimes do, and ran across a mint Portable Junior for a surprisingly reasonable cost—less than 50 bucks. When I first began to see Spitz Juniors on the ‘Bay, they was outrageously priced, but luckily for us planetarium fans, vendors soon realized toy collectors weren’t overly interested in these obscure things and prices dropped sharply.

When my unit arrived, I found that, for once, the eBay ad had been accurate. Save for a little corrosion on the battery terminals, it was near mint and beautiful. I wasted no time getting it into a dark room, just like on that long ago 1965 afternoon. A flip of the switch, and…it might be too much to say I was in ecstasy, but I was impressed all over again. Maybe it’s that I live where the sky is terrifically light-polluted and blocked by too many trees, but, if anything, the ceiling sky was even more magical-seeming than it was Back in The Day. You’ll prob’ly be relieved to know I’ve been able to exercise some restraint and have not made Miss Dorothy sit through (too many) of my still corny planetarium shows. Lizbeth and I, however, have amused ourselves many a time with productions that include a recreation of The Coming of the Stars of Winter.

How shall I continue to satisfy lust for the Indoor Sky? I hope the Homestar EX will soon arrive on our shores at a more manageable price. And I’ll continue to hope somebody, someday will market an affordable widget that will project Stellarium and my other computer planetariums on the ceiling. But till one of those things happens, I’ll just continue my quest for a cheap and good (non portable) Spitz Junior; one with that prized Sky Zoo attachment. Whatever comes down the pike, rest assured that on any given cloudy Possum Swamp evenin’ you are likely to find your Old Uncle relaxing and reminiscing under stars on the ceiling.

If you’re as obsessed by these old toys (and home planetariums in general) as Unk, why not jine-up with my Spitz Junior Yahoogroup? Despite the name, discussions of all home planetariums old and new are more than welcome. Another excellent resource for stars on the ceiling fans is the HPA, the Home Planetarium Association. Want to ogle an amazing collection of pro projectors? Stroll through the Planetarium Projector Museum. Check 'em out, muchachos.

Nice blog, here is some more information on Home Ceiling Lighting.
Apparently, the later Spitz Portable was produced by Steven's as well. I have one en route right now, so apparently it was produced well into the 1970's.
I've also made a little projector as well from a little educational kit...
Uncle Rod, NICE summary! HPA got its spitz juniors in the early days of Ebay (the yellow/blue and the white/black) and the antique lady in Ohio THREW IN the Spitz Sky Zoo ball as an afterthought! Now if I could get a Renwalls Cosmorama I'd be happy! thanks for the link! Gare of the Home Planetarium Association
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