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Planetariums Have Come a Long Way

After Walther Bauerfeld’s invention of the projection planetarium, people could see and learn about the universe day or night, regardless of the weather. The first planetarium theater was a hit. Planetariums sprung up around the world to feed the public’s thirst for knowledge of the new discoveries being announced almost daily from ever larger telescopes that were also being built. Most of these new telescopes were in the United States, including one designed by an American named Armand Spitz. Soon more companies started to design and produce planetarium projectors. You can read more about planetarium design here.

Memphis’s first planetarium projector was a Spitz A-1 projector installed in 1954 at the museum. It provided a place for science interpretation combined with the hallowed tradition of storytelling. Armed with a pointer, a planetarium lecturer directed attention across light years of time and space, inspiring ideas worthy of an infinite universe.

The newest planetarium in Memphis is the AutoZone Dome at the Sharpe Planetarium, located in the Pink Palace Museum. The projector is digital and uses a 3D database to provide the ability to simulate space travel. Planetarium shows include prerecorded programs about some of the most intriguing topics in astronomy, often with a live, guided tour of the current night sky. Visitors can even be launched from the front lawn of the museum to look back at earth, and travel to other planets and beyond.


Technology and Observation of the Universe

From the time of the ancient Greek philosophers to the Middle Ages, human understanding of the universe changed very little. With better technology, including navigation tools and telescopes, came more precise observation.  Early scientists bravely questioned the status quo. Great ones like Copernicus and  Tycho Brahe started to pull back the veil protecting long-held beliefs, which sparked the Renaissance. Ruling authorities saw this as a threat to their power and fought against change; however, reason ultimately won out, and the idea of crystalline spheres silently crashed to the ground, opening the universe to a new era of discovery.

All through this time of change, the sky never lost its power to compel humans to look up, not only for the sheer beauty of the sight but also for the mysteries yet to be discovered. From this desire grew the need for a better way to show and teach each new generation who wants to share in the wonders of the universe. Unfortunately, the sky is not always available to see, even at night. Today, the lights of cities obscure the view that inspired generations before. Simulating the night sky is not easy. The first attempts were hollow spheres with precision-drilled holes to let in light from outside, which could fit barely half a dozen people. Electric lights provided a better solution. Walther Bauersfeld, a German engineer from Zeiss, acted on a suggestion from German astronomer Max Wolf and designed the world’s first projection planetarium. It opened in Jena, Germany, on July 18, 1926.

How the Sun, Moon and Stars Established a Year in Time

For early humans, the sky was full of mystery. The Sun, god-like in its power, ruled the day, providing light and warmth. Its power seemed to make the crops grow. The night, a time to gather close for safety, was ruled by the weaker light of the Moon.  Its enigmatic phases marked a regular period of time. Twelve “moonths” (months) conveniently marked the yearly cycle of the seasons. It was a useful way to prepare for the growing season on which lives depended. While the vast majority of stars moved in lockstep as if fixed in place on a slowly rotating crystal sphere, five lesser lights seemed free to move among them with a will of their own. These wandering stars, or “planetes” in Latin, called attention to themselves with their forward and backward motions at different speeds. They traced loops over time as they moved through twelve star patterns, which gave those constellations an implied heavenly significance. The Zodiac, as it came to be called, attracted a cadre of soothsayers who created rules to discern personality traits, predict future opportunities and perils, and divine the will of the gods. Naturally then, the planets were named for gods and given personality traits according to their motions and suggesting their intentions. Pairings of planets and the appearance of eclipses, comets, meteors, and aurora were open to interpretation concerning the lives of kings and commoners alike.

The Origin of Planetarium Theaters

We miss your presence in the AutoZone Dome at the Sharpe Planetarium, so this week planetarium manager Dave Maness will share the interesting story of the origin of planetarium theaters. Dave is one of the friendly voices you hear in the dark during planetarium shows at the museum, which usually include a story or two from those classic collections of dots we call the constellations.

It all began long before recorded history, after the taming of fire and the development of language. At the end of a busy day of hunting and gathering, and after consuming an evening meal roasted over an open fire, small groups of nomadic humans would likely lay back with full stomachs and relax under a starry sky. And what a sight it must have been! There were no city lights to compete with the twinkling starlight. Since the stars were nearly the same from night to night, the same stars greeted them each clear night like family. Soon they connected dots into shapes and then pictures, mostly animals at first and then people.

These ‘pictures’ were a revelation, as though a higher power set them there for a purpose, but why? With that question was born the art of storytelling. The sky became the picture book for those tales retold over millennia, and embellished along the way. Soon the sky was full of gods, royalty, animals, monsters, damsels in distress, the heroes who saved the day, and the villains who got their just punishments.


A banjuke, also known as a banjolele, is a four-stringed musical instrument with a small banjo-type body and a fretted ukulele neck. This banjuke was made by the J.R. Stewart Company in Chicago in the 1920s and belonged to Memphis blues player “Little Laura” Dukes.

Dukes was born Laura Ella Smith in North Memphis in 1907. Her father was a drummer in W. C. Handy's band. He would often bring her to the theaters and taverns where the band performed. Laura began her career as a singer and dancer. At 4’7” tall, she was often billed as "Little Laura" or "Little Bit." After initially learning guitar, she later took up the banjo, ukulele and mandolin.

Mineral Spheres

As a young man, Ward Hutchins attended the Colorado School of Mines. Though he worked as a pipe fitter, he loved to travel to hills and caverns collecting rocks. 

In the 1950s, Hutchins, also a champion bowler, started repairing and custom-fitting bowling balls as a sideline. In time, he lost interest in bowling, but he retained his love for spheres.  Combining two of his passions – mineralogy and bowling – he began crafting the rocks and minerals he loved to collect into these gleaming perfect spheres.

First, he cut the rock or mineral into a cube with a diamond saw. Then he ground the cube into a sphere and polished it to a high gloss. A wide selection of Hutchins’ work is on display in the Rocks & Minerals Gallery at the Pink Palace Museum.

Wood Hat

The Pink Palace Museum has an extensive clothing collection, including hats. One of our most unusual hats belonged to Mary Guidi, a successful Memphis lawyer who practiced in the city for 42 years. During her career, she won a 1949 Supreme Court-mandated retrial that was ordered on the grounds that the initial trial judge “had an aversion and prejudice to women lawyers.” She also won a case before the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1955 to require more specific language in police warrants.

Guidi worked in the Falls Building downtown. One day she overheard colleague Luther Hammons say that he could make anything out of wood, so she challenged him to make her a hat. According to Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper columnist Eldon Roark, Hammons replied, “I’m not so sure I can make good, but I’ll guarantee you this: I’ll make something that will look more like a hat than the things you’ve been wearing.” Roark ran a picture of Guidi wearing this burled walnut hat in a 1940 column.

Roman Coins

Currently on display in the Cossitt Gallery in the Pink Palace Mansion, this Roman coin collection was donated by Louis Phillip Wulff in 1931.

In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted for two days, shrouding the Roman city of Pompeii in ash and lava, killing around 2,000 people. However, because of the amount of ash, many aspects of daily life in Pompeii were well preserved. Through this preservation, archaeologists have determined that Pompeii was a strong, monetary-based society.  Thousands of coins like the one seen here have been uncovered at the site.

Another coin is a silver denarius from Rome. Emperor Hadrian ruled Rome from 117-138 AD, and went on to be known as one of the Five Good Emperors. During his rule, he built villas, bath houses and buildings. He reconstructed the Pantheon and Trajan’s Forum. He also erected Hadrian’s Wall in Britain to delineate the northern border of the Roman Empire and display Rome’s power. Parts of this wall still stand today.

The bronze coin depicts Emperor Claudius II (Gothicus). Emperor Claudius II (213-270 AD) ruled the Roman Empire from 268-270 AD, before dying of the plague. His reign began the era of the Illyrian Emperors (268-285 AD). These emperors were known for their military strength, and Claudius II was no exception. He got his nickname “Gothicus” by defeating the Goths in the 268 AD Battle of Naissus, driving the Goths from the Balkan Peninsula.

Photo: Memphis Pink Palace Museum Collection


It seems appropriate that a MEMPHIS museum should have mummies in its collection, right? Especially since Memphis, Tennessee, is named after Memphis, Egypt.

Animals were extremely important to ancient Egyptians, both as gods and pets. When someone of importance died, often their pets or animals with symbolic meaning were buried to accompany them into the afterlife. These animal mummies were often put in wooden cases, jars, or wrapped directly with the mummified human. Before being mummified, this crocodile was dipped in bitumen, a natural semi-solid form of petroleum that encases the body and preserves it.  

Hawks had great importance in Egyptian culture. Horus, the god of the sky and divine protector of kings, is depicted having the body of a man and the head of a hawk. Horus was worshipped throughout Egypt and has particularly strong ties to Edfu, the site of the ancient city Mese. This mummified hawk was found in Edfu inside the Temple of Horus, which was erected in 237 BC.  

A donor gave these two mummies to the museum in 1968, and they are on display in the Cossitt Gallery in the Pink Palace Mansion.

Photo: Memphis Pink Palace Museum Collection

Yellow Fever

COVID-19 isn’t the first time a virus has struck Memphis hard. Three times in the 1870s, Memphis was ravaged by yellow fever. The disease is characterized by jaundiced skin, fever, hemorrhaging, black vomit, and in some cases, mental decline.

The worst outbreak occurred in 1878. This epidemic began in Memphis in mid-August 1878 when ships evaded quarantine measures in fever-stricken New Orleans and landed sick passengers and sailors at the Memphis harbor. The yellow fever virus passed from human to human through Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. They thrived in Memphis, where sanitation measures were lax and  standing water where the females could lay their eggs was abundant.

The city Board of Heath made an official announcement of the epidemic on August 13,1878. Within days over 25,000 people left Memphis. These people were refused entry into several other cities once the national media ran stories about the epidemic. The people who stayed behind during the “fever season” were given limited aid from assorted groups. The sisters of St. Mary’s Cathedral went to peoples’ homes to offer help, and the Howard Association provided supplies, aid, and professional services. The first African American doctor to practice medicine in the city, Dr. R.H. Tate from Cincinnati, came to assist the Howard Association’s mission, but he died after only three weeks in Memphis. Since the cause of the virus was not known at the time, there was little the helpers could do to prevent the spread of the disease.

Unlike Memphians of the past, we know what spreads COVID-19--person-to-person contact and transmission of respiratory droplets--so remember to wash your hands and follow the CDC guidelines

Photo: Yellow fever hospital tent engraving published in on the cover of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper on September 21, 1878; Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center

Memphis Red Sox

In 1921, Memphis had two main Negro baseball clubs, the Memphis Union Giants and the A. P. Martin's Barber Boys Baseball Club. The teams combined in 1922 to become the Memphis Red Sox. Dr. J.B. Martin and Dr. B.B. Martin, members of one of Memphis’s most prominent African American families, bought the team in 1929 and established Martin Park. In 1937, the Red Sox became a charter member of the Negro American League. They were one of the few teams in the league to have their own ball park. The Negro League gave the black community a source of pride in a time of segregation and inequality. This glove belonged to infielder Marlin “Pee Wee” Carter. Carter was one of the stars of the team in the 1930s, and played in the 1942 East-West All-Star Game. He served in the Coast Guard from 1943 to 1945. Although Cater returned to play until 1951 and the Red Sox continued to flourish into the early 1950s, the Negro Leagues declined after Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball in 1947.

Photo: Memphis Pink Palace Museum Collection, 1979.020.0002

International Day of Remembrance of Slavery Victims

On today’s United Nation International Day of Remembrance of Slavery Victims and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, we recognize slavery's legacy of racism. Most of the first Africans in Memphis were enslaved to white settlers. Slaves were merchandise in Memphis, bought and sold as labor to support the city’s cotton trade. By the mid-19th century, Memphis was the South’s largest inland slave market. Slave dealers such as Nathan Bedford Forrest made fortunes by purchasing and selling black men, women and children. By 1860, slaves accounted for 17% of Memphis’ population. In addition to brutal fieldwork, some slaves were artisans, cooks and domestic workers. Despite slavery’s abolition in 1865, inequalities persist in our social, economic and legal systems.   

Large numbers of black migrants arrived in Memphis during the Civil War and Reconstruction (1865-1877). Reconstruction brought positive change for the black community. However, Jim Crow laws mandating segregation across the South replaced the reforms of Reconstruction. This period was marked by lynchings and other violence that forced many to flee north. Throughout 1950s and 1960s, black Memphians and their supporters increasingly challenged Jim Crow laws, including the famous “I AM A MAN” march that was followed by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, black Memphians, including recent African immigrants, make up approximately 65% of the population. 

Photo: This fist charm was found at the Hilderbrand House, a small plantation near today’s Memphis International Airport. It was manufactured as part of a hook and eye closure. Many archaeologists believed enslaved peoples adopted these objects as charms or as secret symbols of resistance. 

W.C. Handy and Danny Thomas

W.C. Handy is one of the most recognizable names in Memphis music. Handy was born in 1873 in Florence, Alabama, to formerly enslaved parents. He was a literate man who wrote down the songs of black workers, which formed the basis of the blues. Handy moved to Memphis in 1903 and kept an office on Beale Street. In 1909, E.H. Crump hired Handy to play music as part of his mayoral campaign. He wrote “Boss Crump,” later renamed “Memphis Blues,” which became the campaign’s theme song. Handy moved to New York City in 1917, the same year he published “Beale Street Blues,” and worked there until he died in March 1958 at age 84. 

In September 1958, Memphis hosted a “Blues of Glory” show at Crump Stadium to honor Handy and raise money for a memorial statue to be placed in Handy Park on Beale Street. One of the night’s special performers was gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.  Mrs. W.C. Handy presented her husband’s trumpet to Mayor Edmund Orgill who accepted on behalf of the city and had the trumpet placed in the Memphis Museum (now the Pink Palace Museum). Before the trumpet was retired, Luther Steinberg of the show’s orchestra played “Memphis Blues” one last time on the instrument. 

 In March 1955, entertainer Danny Thomas put on a show at Crump Stadium to raise money for the hospital he wanted to create, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. He wrote and performed a song titled “Bring Back Our Beale Street Blues,” to protest the city changing Beale Street to Beale Avenue to conform to a city plan making all east/west thoroughfares avenues. After Thomas performed the song, Mayor Frank Tobey changed the name back  to Beale Street. In October 1960, Thomas came to Memphis to lay the cornerstone for St. Jude.  Thomas visited Handy Park and was invited to play a few notes on Handy’s trumpet, which was on loan from the museum for the occasion.  Newspaperman Clark Porteous noted, “He’s not so good on the trumpet, yet…it was the sentiment that counted.” 

Photo: Memphis Pink Palace Museum Collection, 1979.039.0001 

Carolina Parakeet

In January of 1827, British writer Mrs. Francis Trollope landed in Memphis on her way to Neshoba, a utopian community east of Memphis. Later Mrs. Trollope wrote about Memphis in her book, Domestic Manners of the Americans. Here are some excerpts from her experience in our city. “The remainder of the day passed pleasantly enough in rambling round the little town, which is situated at the most beautiful point of the Mississippi; the river is here so wide as to give it the appearance of a noble lake.....The town stretches in a rambling irregular manner along the cliff, from the Wolf River, one of the innumerable tributaries to the Mississippi, to about a mile below it.  Half a mile more of the cliff beyond the town is cleared of trees, and produces good pasture for horses, cows, and pigs;  At either end of this space the forest again rears its dark wall, and seems to say to man, "so far shalt thou come, and no farther!"...... Behind this long street the town straggles back into the forest, and the rude path that leads to the more distant log dwellings becomes wilder at every step......The great height of the trees, the quantity of pendant vine branches that hang amongst them and the variety of gay plumaged birds, particularly the small green parrot, made us feel we were in a new world.....” The “small green parrot” was the Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), which became extinct by 1904. You can find this specimen in the Cossitt Gallery in the museum. You can read more about the decline of Carolina parakeets on the Smithsonian Magazine’s website.

Photo: Memphis Pink Palace Museum Collection, 1931.002.0116

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