The Marimba Virtuoso’s Desktop Planetarium


On 21 April 1962, the Seattle World’s Fair opened to the general public. Included in its many displays on fashionable science and the progressive future was this electrical desktop orrery. Much like the standard clockwork orreries of centuries previous, this unit confirmed the motions of the planets and different celestial objects, with an overlay that exposed the moons, stars, and some comets.

The United States was on the time approaching “peak space.” The earlier 12 months, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin had change into the primary human to achieve outer area, and on 12 September 1962 President Kennedy would announce the United States’ intention to place a person on the moon earlier than the last decade’s finish. The U.S. authorities dedicated US $9 million to assist construct a
NASA-themed science exhibit on the Seattle World’s Fair. The truthful’s iconic landmark was the Space Needle.

All in all, it appeared like the perfect place to debut a space-age electrical orrery.

What is an orrery?

Traditional orreries have been mechanical fashions of the photo voltaic system. These typically lovely and complicated devices have been devised by expert clockmakers for example how the planets and their moons moved by the photo voltaic system. Although the traditional Greeks and Romans had planetarium units that calculated astronomical positions, it wasn’t till the early 18th century that orreries took their identify. Around 1713, the English nobleman Charles Boyle (grandnephew of Robert Boyle, a founder of recent chemistry) commissioned such a
machine for his son. Boyle was the 4th Earl of Orrery. The identify caught.

This 6-minute documentary, concerning the restoration of a 1758
grand orrery—so known as as a result of it consists of the outer planets—is value watching as a result of it exhibits the inner gears and clockwork mechanisms:

A predecessor to the orrery was the
armillary sphere, which featured a ball representing Earth at its middle and stars rotating round it. Armillaries may very well be used to calculate dawn and sundown and the size of a day. They had a great run up till the mid-Sixteenth century, when on his deathbed Nicolaus Copernicus printed De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) and ushered within the heliocentric mannequin of the photo voltaic system. Armillary spheres now make fancy backyard ornaments.

A patent drawing of an apparatus with interconnecting sprockets and shafts.In Clair Omar Musser’s desktop planetarium, every of the 9 planets moved by itself shaft and ball chain.U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

By the Nineteen Fifties, the standard Copernican orrery was in want of an digital improve. Clair Omar Musser, an engineer working for Scientific Space Industries, a subsidiary of Hughes Aircraft, took up the problem. In his 1958
U.S. patent software for a “new and improved orrery,” Musser talked about the significance of exhibiting the asteroid belt, in mild of rising curiosity in area journey past the moon and Mars. His invention would additionally enhance upon conventional orreries by including the paths of well-known comets.

A lightbulb representing the solar was on the middle of Musser’s orrery, mounted on a central shaft with coterminal tubular shafts on which the 9 planets (he included Pluto) rotated at their proportional speeds. A translucent display had astronomical labels and markings inscribed in phosphorus, seen solely when backlit with ultraviolet mild. The set of knobs beneath the display managed the illumination of the celestial our bodies by variable resistance.

Musser’s authentic orrery was a hulking machine, standing over 2 meters tall and meant to be used in museums and college school rooms. He constructed the prototype in 1958 in the course of the International Geophysical Year. According to the Planetarium Projector and Science Museum, fewer than 50 items have been made, they usually bought for about $6,000 (about $62,000 at present). Musser created the extra reasonably priced desktop mannequin proven at high for the Seattle World’s Fair. It stood about 60 centimeters tall, concerning the measurement of a TV. (To see the desktop orrery in motion, take a look at the 2 movies on the backside of this itemizing on the Agent Gallery Chicago.)

Who was Clair Omar Musser?

Black and white photo of a man in a suit, sitting at a desk in front of a round display. Before he designed his desktop orrery, Clair Omar Musser created a bigger model, appropriate to be used in school school rooms and museums.

Percussive Arts Society

I first stumbled throughout Musser’s desktop orrery, known as the Copernican Planetarium Model 500, throughout a go to to the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, on the University of Cambridge. I already knew a bit about orreries, and I figured it could be simple to search out out extra about this one and its creator. I used to be incorrect.

A fast Internet search on Musser returned lots of of hundreds of outcomes, however nearly nothing about his engineering work. In truth, after weeks of researching, I nonetheless know little greater than the three unreferenced strains on the finish of his Wikipedia web page. At some level within the Nineteen Fifties, he left a educating place at Northwestern University, moved to Southern California, and started working for Hughes Aircraft and possibly NASA as effectively. According to Wikipedia, he additionally obtained a doctorate in engineering from Oxford University, though I used to be unable to trace down a replica—and even the title—of his thesis.

None of this might have been so odd, besides that previous to becoming a member of Hughes Aircraft, Musser had by no means labored as an engineer. Born in 1901 in Manheim, Pa., and introduced up within the Mennonite religion, he switched to engineering in his 50s.

The lots of of hundreds of Internet outcomes on Musser, it seems, all take care of the primary half of his profession, as a world-renowned marimba virtuoso and composer. I didn’t know what a marimba is, so I appeared it up: It’s a percussion instrument much like a xylophone, however with a decrease vary and a hotter, deeper timbre. When I contacted a pal on the University of South Carolina’s School of Music and mentioned I used to be doing analysis on Musser, I obtained an excited “Wow!” Apparently, performing Musser’s etudes for marimba is a ceremony of passage for percussion majors.

Cover of sheet music featuring a photo of a man and a vibraphone.

During the primary half of Clair Omar Musser’s profession, he was a world-renowned marimba virtuoso and composer.

Percussive Arts Society

Not solely was Musser a tremendous performer and composer, he was additionally a designer of musical devices. He made improvements in grips, mallets, and methods, and he held greater than 40 worldwide patents on musical devices. In 1925, he launched a brand new instrument, the marimba-celeste, which had a five-octave vary that coated each the xylophone’s and the marimba’s registers. In 1929, he organized and directed a 25-piece, all-female marimba ensemble for Paramount Pictures.

For most individuals, debuting an merchandise at a world’s truthful could be a once-in-a-lifetime dream, however Musser’s orrery in Seattle was decidedly second fiddle to his participation within the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition in 1933–34. There, nightly within the Hall of Science, Musser directed a 100-piece marimba orchestra. They performed authentic compositions by Musser, in addition to particular preparations of common items. After the truthful, he toured Europe with one other 100-piece marimba orchestra. They have been scheduled to carry out for the Silver Jubilee of King George V, for which Musser designed particular “coronation” devices for every member of the orchestra, however their efficiency was canceled. They did play on the 1935 Brussels World’s Fair and different venues, earlier than returning to the United States and taking part in at Carnegie Hall. This video captures a live performance in Paris:

What was the Celestaphone?

I don’t know why Musser left the world of music to hitch Hughes Aircraft. According to the discovering help for the Clair Omar Musser Collection on the Percussive Arts Society, he labored there for less than about 5 years. It appears, although, he had a lifelong fascination with area.

Musser started amassing meteorites in 1936, and his pastime grew to become broadly identified sufficient that he obtained them as presents. In 1960, as an illustration, the Soviet Union offered him with a chunk of the Sikhote-Alin meteorite. Two years later, the Philippines’ Atomic Energy Commission contributed a siderite, a nickel-iron meteorite.

After 4 a long time of amassing, Musser had amassed 630 kilograms of meteorites. Then, in 1977, he took about half of his assortment to a foundry and oversaw the work of melting them right down to forge 30 bars of exact sizes and tones. These “meteoric tone bars” grew to become the idea for a rare creation: the Celestaphone.

The Celestaphone is a vibraphone with a 2.5-octave vary on a chromatic scale, from the bottom violin G to the 1,000-cycle C above treble clef. It has one sustaining pedal. It now resides on the Rhythm! Discovery Center, in Indianapolis. Here’s an indication of the instrument’s ethereal sound:

According to the museum’s analysis notes on this one-of-a-kind object, it was impressed by Halley’s Comet and Musser’s mixed pursuits in music and area. Musser would have been 8 years previous—an impressionable age—when Halley’s Comet got here into naked-eye view in 1910. It was the primary time the comet had visited for the reason that invention of pictures. And on 19 May 1910, Earth truly handed by the comet’s tail. By all accounts, it was a spectacular sight.

Musser lived to see the comet’s return in 1986, though Earth’s positioning with the solar made for a number of the worst attainable viewing situations. (My 12-year-old self remembers staring on the evening sky and not seeing the comet.)

It’s going too far to ascribe to a comet the ability to direct somebody’s profession, and but Musser undoubtedly adopted his personal eccentric orbit. But simply as celestial orbits are periodic, music for pitched percussion just like the marimba and the Celestaphone typically depends on periodic musical phrases. Perhaps Musser’s planetarium, like his spectacular corpus of compositions for the marimba, speaks to an everlasting fascination with the music of the spheres.

Part of a persevering with sequencetaking a look at historic artifacts that embrace the boundless potential of know-how.

An abridged model of this text seems within the October 2023 print problem as “No Ordinary Orrery.”

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