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Lost for decades, the Adler Planetarium’s original Zeiss star projector back in Chicago

Planetarium staff hope to restore the rust-blotched 1930s projector to something approaching its original glory.

The Adler Planetarium’s first Zeiss sky projector.
Missing for decades, the Adler Planetarium’s first Zeiss sky projector is back in Chicago.
Adler Planetarium photo

It looked like a giant mechanical spider or perhaps an alien landing craft tromping across the Earth in search of puny humans.

But it wasn’t until all of the other lights beneath the dome were extinguished and a bulb as big as a grapefruit began to glow inside the contraption that visitors understood its true power.

“It was magical,” said Michelle Nichols, Adler Planetarium’s director of public observing. “I still have not seen anything that recreates the night sky like those Zeiss projectors.”

Was magical, because the Adler’s last Zeiss projector was dismantled in 2010, as digital technology improved and the lenses, bulbs and perforated disks used to project stars and planets became harder to replace.

For decades, Adler staff heard rumors about the fate of their first projector — a 1930 model that was also the first Zeiss projector installed in the Western Hemisphere — after it was sold in 1969 to the city of Jackson, Mississippi, which had plans to build its own planetarium.

It wasn’t until earlier this year that Adler staff finally tracked down the projector, stored in a barn in Ohio, where an eccentric inventor kept it in its original packing crates for 30 years.

Now back in Chicago, the projector will, the Adler hopes, be restored and put on display.

“We didn’t know where it was for so many years — and nobody knew,” Nichols said. “To be able to actually touch it and see it and play a part in getting it back to us. I never thought I would be that fortunate. It’s just amazing.”

Decades before rockets first blasted into space, visitors came to the Adler to dream. They sat beneath the dome, their heads tipped back, transfixed as day faded to dusk, then to a night sky like black velvet and dotted with thousands of stars.

“I cannot tell you how many times you heard an audible gasp from the crowd when they would see what the sky really looks like when it’s dark,” said Nichols, one of the operators of the Adler’s last Zeiss projector, similar in design to its first.

Those gasps came from a mostly city-dwelling audience unaccustomed to night without the glare of artificial light. The Zeiss projector, shaped like a giant dumbbell, was an extraordinary feat of engineering, combining multiple lenses and projectors that could, literally, recreate any night sky in human history — and beyond.

“I could show you the sky 10,000 years into the future, 12,000 years into the past,” Nichols said.

It was operated by a wraparound console with dozens of buttons and switches.

“You kind of felt like the Wizard of Oz in that little U-shaped podium because you had control of the universe,” said Sam Mims, who operated a Zeiss projector at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in Baton Rouge during the 1980s.

An Adler booklet from 1935 described the Zeiss projector experience this way:

“The visitors come to see a stirring spectacle, the heavens brought within the confines of museum walls. Not a trivial plaything, a mimic aping firmament, but the heavens portrayed in great dignity and splendor, dynamic, inspiring, in a way that dispels the mystery but retains the majesty … .”

In 1969, the Adler decided to upgrade its projector. So the Chicago Park District, which operated the planetarium at the time, sold the original to the city of Jackson, Mississippi, which was building its own museum. Jackson officials later decided the Adler’s projector wasn’t going to work.

The machine then embarked on a journey that took it to New York state, Louisiana and Ohio, before returning home to Chicago.

It spent most of that time in wooden crates in a barn in rural Mechanicsburg, Ohio. The man who bought it was a solar engineer by trade as well as an incurable tinkerer. Pipe organs, manual typewriters and countless other contraptions filled the barn. In the center of it all was a huge pit in which he’d dropped two railroad tanker cars with the hopes of developing a geothermal heating system.

At some point in the past 10 years, Adler staff had heard rumors about their long-lost projector ending up in Ohio. They tracked down the owner and even made a trip out there to take a look at it. But nothing came of it.

Then in 2019, the Adler got a call from the owner’s son, who said his father was ailing and the family planned to sell the property in Ohio. Would the Adler like its projector back? the son wanted to know.

“If we didn’t make this happen, it was going to scrap metal,” said Andrew Johnston, Adler’s vice president for museum experience and collections.

Johnston wouldn’t say how much they paid for it, calling it a “modest sum.”

The projector appears to be in reasonably good shape, even though one of the wooden crates had stood outside for years. Another crate contained a “dead and very mummified mouse,” Johnston said.

The projector now sits in a warehouse on the South Side. The hope is to one day restore it — although not to make it operational — so visitors can get a glimpse of the Adler’s earliest history.

But given that so many other plans for it have fizzled through the decades, isn’t it possible it may remain in storage indefinitely?

“Dear Lord, no,” Nichols insisted. “Absolutely not. One thing we are extraordinarily good at is telling our own story. We would not have gotten this thing back if we didn’t intend on doing something with it.

“We let this thing go because, back then, it was very common for planetariums to get rid of projectors. … Now, we look back on that and go, ‘So many people had their hands on this thing, and it could have ended in a landfill in many different points in its history, but it didn’t.’”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Andrew Johnston’s name. Also, the planetarium still owns its last Zeiss projector, which was dismantled in 2010.