Theater of the Stars: History and Innovation of the Morrison Planetarium

Ad for the original theater. From the Morrison Planetarium website.

One of a Kind

I visited the Morrison in January 2018 with my brother and Mom, in her old neighborhood at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Located at the California Academy of Sciences, the Morrison Planetarium showings are state-of-the-art, giving “visualizations of the latest observations, discoveries, and theories about our Universe on a 75-foot-diameter screen for a rich and immersive experience.” (from the CAS website). The dome is designed to mimic the tilt of the Earth. The frame is composed entirely of recycled steel that supports a Nanoseam projection screen. The Nanoseam makes for a seamless appearance with the bright, modern projector and dome – which feels like sitting inside of a giant egg. The enormity and spectacle of the planetarium is the stuff of legend.

The Morrison has a much longer history as one of the largest optical projector planetariums in the country, rivaled only by the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The planetarium just celebrated its 69th birthday, having opened on November 8th, 1952. It was known as the “Theater of the Stars”. According to director Bing Quock. “The original Morrison was a little different from the dome we have now—at 19.8 meters (65 feet) in diameter, it was just a bit smaller across than the present 23-meter (75-foot) dome. It also wasn’t tilted, and all the seats faced the star projector at the center of the theater, giving a sense of sitting around a campfire on a starry night.” Designed and built by the Academy in 1947 to 1951, the Morrison possessed the first American-made planetarium star projector for a large dome. Its construction was by necessity, due to the inability to obtain Zeiss products from East Germany. According to astronomer J.M. Ryan:

“During the Second World War, the Academy joined a nationwide volunteer effort to support the Allied cause. Its staff and volunteers fabricated some 10,000 optical parts and repaired 6,000 pairs of binoculars for the Navy. At war’s end, the War Department gave the Academy access to its inventory of surplus parts. The Academy Projector was built using a number of robust military-surplus components which at least partially account for its exceptional reliability, particularly the main bearings used to support the heavy starglobes, designed originally for tank turrets. It also contains… dozens of fine World War II Aero Ektar and Aero Tessar lenses, formerly used for aerial surveillance and photography.”

Indeed, after over half a century of use, the projector is mostly original. Ryan, who worked for the Morrison, illuminates the process of creating the awe-inspiring and incredibly realistic night sky: “The natural appearance and image quality of the starpoints stem from the use of irregular apertures which induces an optical illusion of twinkling. The irregular openings were created by depositing a thin aluminum coating over carborundum grains that were precisely placed on flat condenser lenses. The grains were painstakingly sized to approximate the stellar magnitudes…The grain size selection… and some extensive reprocessing that followed, involved many months of work. In sum, it was a tedious procedure that no one would ever use again, but it resulted in perhaps the most natural-looking projected sky ever created.”

Psychedelic Era

In 1957, the Morrison Planetarium hosted the world’s very first psychedelic planetarium light show. This was the beginning of the infamous Vortex concerts. Henry Jacobs was the sound artist and house audio engineer at the time. He developed a circle of sound that spun around the audience, a precursor to what is known today as surround sound. Jacobs used a hand crank to direct the pre-recorded audio to speakers placed strategically around the audience, much like a vortex. Jacobs’ audio accompanied the work of filmmaker Jordan Belson, who contributed abstract visualizations made to groove with the music. The use of Moire patterns and strobe lights added a kaleidoscope of effects to the experience. It was the first of its kind, with the Academy accomplishing another visionary feat, but this time in a psychedelic era of experimentation and pursuit of knowledge. Ryan says,

“Morrison Planetarium also played host to some of the most unusual research ever funded by the U.S. Air Force. In the early 1960’s, it was the venue for a study project to determine whether birds employ celestial navigation to guide their migrations. Though an unusual project for a planetarium, it was very much in keeping with the Academy’s emphasis on life science, and on phenomena of the natural world.”

Later, the Laserium shows became enormously popular for the same reasons, but with updated technology that appealed to the fans of contemporary science fiction in a time when lasers and Star Wars were synonymous with the idealism of the age of space exploration. Bing Quock, the planetarium director, says, “Laserium was so popular that many people thought it was the only program Morrison Planetarium delivered. And what it did was to bring music visualizations to millions of visitors, with content ranging from classical to rock to jazz and new age and shows highlighting the music of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, the Beatles, the Police, and others.

Retirement & Revamp

The original planetarium was retired in 2003 after 51 years of service. The star projector, now an historic artifact, is kept in offsite storage. The newly built, 75-foot, all-digital dome opened to the public in 2008. Every one of the 300 seats is installed at a 30 degree angle to the screen, so that everyone has a similar viewing angle. “Research has shown that the illusion of looking at distant stars in the sky is more convincing in domes larger than 50 feet across,” says Director Quock. Blair Parkin, a consultant at TEECOM, explains: “At 6 meters, your eyes collimate, so you feel like you’re looking at the horizon rather than focusing on a TV screen.” Six 4K projectors are blended, with 5 around the circumference and one at the zenith of the dome. “We wanted the ability to cross-fade from one source to the next as part of the storytelling,” says Kurt Hoffmeister, chief technologist and cofounder of Mechdyne. At the time, there was no solution available to cross fade between two 4K sources, so Mechdyne innovated its own solutions. Hoffmeister explains, “(Mechdyne Canvas program) takes care of the input from multiple sources and switching or fading between them, and it’s also where the warp and blend is done before the image is sent to the projector. There are six of those boxes, synchronised together, one for each projector driving the display.” The planetarium also uses Uniview, an astronomy visualization package by SCISS, which is integrated into the DDM systems. The new Meyer 13.1 surround system has since replaced the hand cranked audio.

“Every show has its own presentation that is based on the latest data that we have available to us,” says senior production manager of the Morrison, Michael Garza. Some of the Morrison Planetarium’s flagship programs include Tour of the Universe featuring NASA OpenSpace, Universe Update, Skywatcher’s Guide, Planet Watch, and the Benjamin Dean Astronomy Lecture Series. “Morrison Planetarium’s role within the museum has also evolved from presenting shows that were strictly about astronomy to covering a wider variety of topics, reflecting the many sciences represented at the Academy, including coral reefs, earthquakes, ecosystems, and sustainability content,” Quock explains. Now in its 13th year since its construction, the revamped Morrison Planetarium continues to wow the crowds and appease science enthusiasts of all ages, and is a national monument to science education in the US. Located in the California Academy of Sciences near Golden Gate, it is a wonderful place to visit and learn with friends and family.

The Academy made a video to celebrate 60 years of the Planetarium, available to watch for free here:


Morrison Planetarium, California Academy of Sciences

Quock, B., Universe Update: Theater of the Stars, California Academy of Sciences

Ryan, J. M., Morrison Star Projector, NCal Astro Resources

Baker, P., Six 4K projectors create highly immersive experience at Morrison Planetarium, Installation International

Spitz, Inc., A Completely Seamless Experience: Nanoseam

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