The World’s Oldest Working Planetarium

Netherlands Friesland 1I’m not going to lie, I was SUPER JEALOUS of everyone who got see the August 21, 2017 solar eclipse in real life, and not on CNN when they were eating dinner. But, we did get to see the world’s oldest working planetarium earlier this year which was also impressive. Its creator, Eise Eisinga, a woolcomber by trade, spent seven years building this planetarium in his living room to demonstrate the planets’ orbits and more importantly, why they would not cause the end of the world.

On May 8, 1774, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the moon were all clustered together. People during this time believed that this was proof of the end of the world. A local priest, wrote an article in the local paper under the pseudonym “Liefhebber van de waarheid”* (lover of truth) which fanned those fears. He claimed that these planets would hurl the Earth from its orbit and send it careening into the sun.

Eise Eisinga, a self-trained astronomer, mathematician and likely one of John B. McLemore’s idols, was up to the task of building this impressive planetarium and refuting Liefhebber’s cosmic billiards theory. His father had stimulated his interests in astronomy and math and Eise took weekly classes at the university in Franeker. He had written a 650-page book on mathematics by the time he was fifteen years old.

His planetarium is a meticulous and oddly beautiful feat of engineering. It is essentially a large clock – keeping the time for each planet’s orbit – from Mercury’s 29.5 days to Saturn’s 29 years and 164 days. Its intricacy is stunning; not just the 10,000 working parts, but also the incredible detail mapping each planet’s orbit, the Earth’s seasons, equinoxes etc. While the planets aren’t to scale, their orbits are: the solar system has been reduced by a trillion. It stops at Saturn which was the last planet known at the time. If the planetarium were expanded to fix Uranus, Neptune and Pluto – it would need to be 25 times as large.

These pictures show the planet’s orbits, the meticulous craftsmanship, Eisinga’s sleeping quarters and the gears in the attic that keep it running:

*If someone accuses you of lying, you can always say, “no way – I’m a liefhebber van de waarheid!”

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