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Wallace Atwood and the Atwood Celestial Sphere

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Tags: atwood, atwood celestial sphere, adler planetarium

Created: 7/19/2016      Updated: 7/24/2016

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Wallace Atwood inside the Atwood SphereWallace W. Atwood inside the Atwood Celestial Sphere

On July 24, 1949 the great Wallace W. Atwood died at the age of 76. As a geographer and geologist, Atwood wrote and contributed to textbooks, taught classes, and even contributed to the New Jersey Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Natural History Survey. Although you may not immediately recognize his name, he contributed an important exhibit to the history of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and one of our fellow Chicago museums.

Illustration of Atwood Sphere from Popular ScienceThe Atwood Sphere in 1913 (Photo from Popular Science)

The Atwood Celestial Sphere opened at the Academy in June of 1913. What set it apart from other planetariums of the period was its ability to rotate around visitors as they stood inside it. Atwood, who served on the Academy’s Board and briefly as Acting Director of the museum, designed the incredible apparatus and it helped usher in a new age of planetariums.

Photo of Atwood Sphere in 1913, courtesy of Popular ScienceIllustration of the Atwood Sphere (From Popular Science)

The sphere was constructed of a thin galvanized sheet metal and only measured 15 feet in diameter. Tiny perforations in the exterior of the sphere allowed light to penetrate, appearing as stars to those viewing from the inside. Atwood designed the celestial sphere to portray the stellar sky as seen from Chicago and visitors would watch as the sun, moon, and stars rotated around them in simulation of Earth’s orbit through the solar system. The sphere was utilized heavily for educational programs at the Academy. School groups, clubs, and other visitors would tour the sphere, with programs often led by Atwood himself during his time with the Academy. 

Photo of Academy in 1980s, featuring Atwood Sphere in the backgroundThe Sphere as it looked in the Laflin Memorial Building in 1987

When the Academy began extensive redesign of its exhibits and developing life zone dioramas in the 1960s, the exterior of the Sphere was painted to look like the Earth and the ceiling of the Laflin Building painted to look like the night sky to blend more readily with the new exhibits. When the Academy moved from the Laflin Building in 1995, the Sphere was transferred to the Adler Planetarium, officially making the move on December 16, 1997. Once it was transferred the staff at the Adler began to restore it to its original 1913 appearance. The geographical features that had been built up on the Sphere’s exterior were flattened, paint was removed and the original star holes were cleaned. Instead of walking into the Sphere, visitors now enter the Sphere in a motorized cart, and the Sphere rotates around the cart, but the experience is very similar to what Academy visitors experience when they walked into the Sphere in 1913.

Photo of Atwood Sphere on exhibit at the Adler PlanetariumThe Atwood Sphere as it looks today on exhibit at the Adler Planetarium

You can learn more about the Atwood Celestial Sphere, and its time at the Academy, by checking out this January 1914 issue of Popular Science (then known as The Popular Science Monthly) here.

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