A Planetarium for Memphis

In November 1953, a group of high school boys formed the Memphis Astronomical Society. They gathered monthly at the Memphis Museum to hold astronomy programs and then look at stars from the museum lawn. Their programs were open to the public and anyone over the age of 12 could join the club. One of the members, Mike Snowden, wanted to take the club’s passion to a new level and get a planetarium for the city.

The Astronomical Society hosted two meetings at the museum in March 1954 to see if there was enough interest in their idea. At the second meeting, Spitz Laboratories sent a man to demonstrate the Spitz projector on a portable canvas dome in the museum’s club room. Former mayor Walter Chandler and Park Commissioner H.S. Lewis attended the demonstration and left in favor of procuring a planetarium. Early conversations suggested putting the new attraction at the fairgrounds, Memphis State, Southwestern (now Rhodes College) or the museum. The museum won and museum director Ruth Bush got to work turning the religion exhibit gallery, which was located on the landing of the grand staircase, into a planetarium. She had the walls painted black, installed tilting chairs around the perimeter of the room and fireproofed the canvas dome.. The projector was installed in October 1954, opened to the public in December and was air conditioned the following August. The total cost of the project was $6,500.00, and shows were initially free for visitors.

Since the museum did not have the funds to hire a planetarium director, the boys of the Astronomical Society hosted the shows. John Buhler, Michael Peck and Ned Lawrence presented shows on the weekends, but the planetarium closed during the week because they were in school. They pointed out constellations, talked about the Christmas star and did any other programming that they felt was needed. Eventually, the museum was able to hire staff to run the planetarium.

The U.S.S.R. launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957adding a “space race” to the Cold War. The space age had begun. These events triggered broad public curiosity about space and astronomy. Because of the persistence of a group of teenaged boys, the Memphis Museum had a planetarium to feed that interest.

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