Steve Sauter's Keys to the Cosmos

A century of astronomy as seen through the Amherst College's Bassett Planetarium and Wilder Observatory

Thursday, November 05, 2009
Mark Roessler Photo
Steve Sauter, the Coordinator of Education at the Amherst College Natural History Museum and Director of the Bassett Planetarium

Clear or cloudy, each night at eleven Steve Sauter walks his dog to the end of his long driveway in Ashfield and looks skyward. The home he and his wife built is positioned so that on the solstice, the sun shines directly through the center of it. Every month of the year, standing beneath the skylight in his upstairs bathroom, he can see the North Star.

Since he was eight years old and his teacher put a solar system poster next to his desk, Sauter has kept track of his position in the universe, studying astronomy as an amateur and keeping an eye on the annual progress of the stars above him. While he's ever vigilant following the latest news from NASA and scientific advancements in astrophysics, he has a strong preference for physically experiencing the night sky rather than exploring it through calculations, computers and orbiting technology.

Sauter is Coordinator of Education at the Amherst College Natural History Museum. It's a position that affords him a corner office in the gorgeous, newly built museum; just outside his door the fossilized remains and tracks of dinosaurs are elegantly displayed along with a wealth of other fascinating fauna and geology collections.

But his job also comes with a set of keys to two buildings elsewhere on the campus that have a less terrestrial focus: the Bassett Planetarium and the Wilder Observatory. Neither of these are housed in new buildings, and it's been a long time since the high-precision equipment inside was state-of-the-art. Still, the clockwork telescope and star projector suit his sensibilities perfectly. He relishes the history of those involved with their construction and acquisition, but mostly he appreciates how tangible they make the stars.

Increasingly, planetariums are going digital. In analog planetariums, the stars are dots of light shone from a very bright bulb set in the center of a metal lantern pierced by thousands of tiny holes. Bigger holes project bigger stars. The Milky Way is a haze of pinpricks. The sky illuminating the dome above viewers' heads is crisp. The stars shone by digital projectors are made up of tiny pixels, and even the highest resolution can seem ever so fuzzy, especially when the stars move.

Regardless of whether the star projectors are analog or digital, though, computers are beginning to drive planetarium presentations. Packaged tour software that uses video footage, pre-recorded narration and multimedia slideshows featuring NASA imagery are the main features on planetarium domes across the world. Stars are in the background. All someone needs to do is click "start" and remember to turn on the lights after it's done.

Sauter is old school. He takes great pride in the Spitz A3P. "It's a remarkable instrument for creating beautiful star fields," he said. "It shows 1,500 star objects—all the stars you can see with your eye, including a number of other objects."

He doesn't want a laser light show or video animation obscuring his ultra-fine star field, and he sees his sharp points of light as the prime attraction and best teaching tool. There's an old carousel slide projector in the room that hasn't been used in decades, but his laptop is the only digital device there. While he's operating the planetarium, turning the knobs and pressing the buttons of the control panel, he uses his MacBook only to mask an annoyingly bright light on the console. He prefers his audiences to focus on the stars and use their own imaginations, and when talking about the constellations, he typically won't even turn on the artistic renderings of the Greek gods the antique system comes with, preferring to point them out and let students fill in their own shapes.

As director of the planetarium, Sauter keeps it available and functioning for school groups and other curious parties. Less of his time is spent at the observatory, which is now mostly used by the Amherst Area Amateur Astronomers Association on clear Saturday nights when it's not too cold. Though not there as often, Sauter has an equal love for the 1903 building and its stellar views.

"Some people come to the Wilder Observatory," Sauter says, "and they look at Saturn through this telescope, and they say, 'Well, that's not very impressive.' That's because they're used to seeing photos of Saturn from the Hubble space telescope or a satellite. But when I look through that lens, I think, 'Wow, this is me looking at Saturn!' There's just a few layers of glass between me and that planet, and I'm seeing it better than Galileo or Isaac Newton did. I might even be seeing it better than Edwin Hubble did."


The telescope was built more than 20 years before Hubble's discovery in 1925 of galaxies beyond our own Milky Way. The astronomer who oversaw the observatory's construction, David Peck Todd, came from a generation of scientists who had a much more myopic view of the universe. Early in Todd's career, he was credited with first identifying the Mars satellite Phobos. He made the discovery with his naked eye looking through a telescope. Rather than measuring light and radio waves and crunching the numbers to see what no one else could see, with his brand new, tremendous 18-inch refracting telescope—still amongst the biggest in the world—he was going to hold a tremendous magnifying glass to the sky and uncover new, amazing sights. Like, possibly, Martians.

In 1907, four years after it was installed in Amherst, Todd and the college's giant telescope took part in the Lowell Mars expedition to the Andes.

Professor Percival Lowell was a preeminent astronomer of his day whose observations had led him to the conclusion that Mars was inhabited. Born in Boston, he became the director of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., where he deduced that the distant planet had seasons like Earth's and that the canals were built as an aqueduct to slake the Martian thirst for water. That year, Lowell calculated that the desert plains high in the Andes would be the best vantage point to photograph the planet and that Todd's new telescope would be the perfect lens through which to do it. He offered to fund the expedition, including building a special camera to Todd's specifications.

The Amherst Observatory, designed by the architecture firm of McKim, Mead and White, and the telescope, built by Alvan Clark and Sons, cost $12,000 to complete; $5,000 of the cost was the lens itself. The 18-inch lens was hand-polished from a hunk of unshaped glass, and it took 18 months to complete. The finished copper telescope is 24 feet long, weighs many tons, and was set up on a 15-foot cast-iron mount.

Though astronomer Todd had spent 20 years of his life waiting for the observatory to be funded and constructed, he jumped at the opportunity to help Professor Lowell. He cut the telescope off its mount and boxed it for shipping, put the lens in his luggage for safekeeping and boarded a boat to spend the summer in northern Chile. Without a Panama Canal, he and his telescope had to take the long way around.

When Todd returned to Lima, Peru from his six weeks in the mountains in September, 1907, he described his adventure in the remote highlands for Popular Astronomy, writing in the third person:

"Professor Todd selected as the first station of the Expedition a spot near the heart of the desert of Tarapaca, in the elevated pampa of northern Chile, formerly part of the territory of Peru. Oficina Alianza, about 60 miles southeast of Iquique, was the location ... where Mars culminated [near its] zenith.

"In addition to being almost constantly clear, day and night, the atmosphere was nearly all the time steady at night.... The practical and photographic work of the Expedition show the extreme benefit of such atmospheric conditions. Almost all the photographs exhibit Martian canals, so-called, or oases, or both, and perhaps 20 of the plates have unmistakably impressed upon them the double canals."

He identified these canals as Euphrates, Nilokeras, Thoth, Ementhes, Gihon, Astoboras and Phison, and noted that the photographic plates "exhibit a remarkable variation of the polar caps hitherto only incompletely recorded, and the stay of the expedition in Alianza was sufficiently long to secure photographs of the complete round of the Martian surface." Unlike in the observatory at Amherst, the telescope was mounted "in the open air, with no protection except from the Sun," but the air was so still at night that the telescope didn't vibrate, and the nearly 7,000 photographs taken were considered for a long time to be the sharpest available of the planet.

The report is triumphant, and Todd lets down his third-person detachment once, with one personal reflection: "It will seem strange to work under a dome again." (For more on Todd and his wife, see Mars-Crossed Lovers.)

The air is rarely still for long on top of the second-tallest hill in Amherst where Todd had built his dream observatory dome and where he eventually returned the telescope and soldered it back onto its cast-iron post. Though Todd had worked at many different observatories and designed others, such as one at Smith College, he made some choices in the design of the Wilder Observatory that Steve Sauter doesn't entirely understand and with which he regularly needs to contend.

For insulation, Todd lined the massive dome with cork board. Since the building wasn't heated, the only time there was any heat to capture was in the summer, when the cork made things stifling. Even though most of the cork has been removed, the roof is complex, and there are many cracks where the glued cork couldn't be reached. Now, every time someone opens the dome to the sky or rotates it, bits of cork still rain down on the polished wood floor.

More peculiar, though, was Todd's decision to place the eyepiece 10 feet above that hardwood floor, which made looking through it and handling it much more difficult. To maneuver the huge telescope into position, Sauter can turn a set of wheels that move the giant cylinder by degrees, but for bigger movements, he prefers to pull at a set of tethers strapped to either end, moving around the floor beneath the massive object like someone working a kite. Today there's a metal viewing platform on wheels, but when Todd looked at the stars from under the dome, he sat perched at the top of a tremendous stepladder. If he fell, which Sauter says happened often, it was a long way down.

The clockwork part of the telescope is a mechanism in its base that slowly moves the giant telescope, so the astronomer can compensate for the Earth's rotation and keep track of celestial objects for hours at a time. Says Sauter, "You can imagine Todd sitting up on that ladder, staring at Mars for hours. Forgetting the telescope's moving, he inches to the edge of his seat. Then he's leaning to the side a little, then a little more, and then suddenly he's on the floor, wondering what had happened."

As a student at Hartford High School in the early 1960s, Steve Sauter had a key to the school's observatory and the 10-inch refractor there, built, like the Amherst College telescope, by Alvan Clark, and 10 years older. "If you look at my yearbook, there were others in the Astronomy Club with me, but they were my friends, who I'd convinced to join," he says. "It was easy. I mean, how cool is it that their friend has a key to the observatory, there's no teacher there, and he doesn't need any permission, he just waltzes in and does what he pleases? We could go up on the flat rooftop of this new, modern building—no railings—totally unsupervised."

While his friends joined the club for the freedom, Sauter loved the telescope.

"Exquisite. Exquisite condition: gorgeous gleaming brass, everything worked like the day Alvan Clark finished it," he said. "Everything balanced. You could barely touch it and it would move for you."


In addition to his early introduction to Alvan Clark telescopes, Sauter also had the opportunity to form a close personal connection to the Bassett Planetarium's 1958 Spitz A3P star projector long before he arrived in Amherst, since Hartford High School purchased the same model in the early '60s. As a teenager, he showed such a burning interest in learning more about it that his science teacher ended up giving him his own key to that, too.

To help presenters see what they were doing in the dark, the control panel in the planetarium was designed with faintly illuminated labels for the dozens of knobs and dials. A short while back the bulb burned out on the Amhert College planetarium, though, and a replacement hasn't been found. Not that Sauter's looking very hard. His long familiarity with planetarium operations allows him to work the system in the dark, without labels, and the less light in the room, the brighter the stars are. He prefers it this way.

Amherst College's planetarium was donated in 1960 by Preston Rogers Bassett, an alum from the class of 1918, and it was the prototype for what was to become one of the Spitz company's most popular models. When technicians were troubleshooting problems and planning upgrades, they often used Bassett Planetarium as the guinea pig. For a long time, that meant it was the most up-to-date, but these days it means Sauter's the caretaker of a classic model with all the features and no one supplying any of the parts any more. Deerfield Academy recently upgraded its planetarium, and after trying to sell it, eventually accepted the offer from Sauter's mechanic to take the old Spitz A3 off its hands for free, if he would cart it away in his truck.

Unlike a digital planetarium run by a computer, Sauter explained that for his clockwork planetarium, it's not merely a question of typing in a date to see what the sky looked like on any given night. The mechanics of the solar system are represented by wheels and gears, not code, so he either needs to turn a dial and cycle the machine through all the days and nights between the current and desired date, or he needs to get a set of screwdrivers and go to work on the mechanism itself to set it. A college astronomy group also uses the planetarium, and between their and Sauter's regular use, it's rarely set to the current date. For his purposes he needs accurate star fields and planet movements through the seasons, but the specific date of the night sky he and his student groups are looking at doesn't much matter.

While the Spitz A3P's daily clock might often be inaccurate, the machine itself acts as an historical marker of the era when outer space was becoming a realm not only explored by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, but by Walter Cronkite and the nations of the world.

"In 1957 Sputnik was launched," Sauter said. " And America was stunned to wake up and find they were losing a space race they didn't even know they were in."

Prior to Sputnik, the Spitz company that made the planetarium had been run out of the home of founder Armand Neustadter Spitz. There wasn't much general interest in astronomy, and he couldn't afford a workshop. Consequently, he later wrote, "the dining-room table and almost every other surface in the house was piled high with models, tools, books, correspondence, and parts of several planetariums." At the point when his prototype was installed in Amherst, though, his company had moved from an old movie theater to a real production facility. By the end of the 1960s, they could afford a custom factory in Chadds Ford, Penn. With the race to the moon, the solar system entered the mainstream.


Armand Spitz was born in 1904, the year after Amherst College's Wilder Observatory was built, but his obsession with the stars started when he was an adult.

Spitz, the future planetarium builder, grew up in Philadelphia ( Before he was 30, he'd made a career in newspapers. Before the Depression struck, he'd gone from reporter to editor, and finally owner and publisher of the Township News. When he and the paper went bankrupt in 1932, he headed for Paris to begin again as a foreign correspondent. Penniless, he found work as a dishwasher on a freighter.

Crossing the Atlantic, he made friends with an officer who taught him celestial navigation. "To reckon positions, Armand built a sextant out of a water-filled dish pan, a board, and a toothpick," writes Brent Abbatantuono, an expert on Spitz. "With this apparatus, Spitz launched his life-long fascination with simplified astronomical instruments that culminated in the Model A portable planetarium."

Spitz returned to the States, got married, and by 1935 was working as an assistant astronomer and lecturer at Haverford College. Soon he also began working for Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, conducting presentations in the Fels Planetarium. It had been installed in 1933, and was the second in the country.

As an educator, he became known for his innovative approaches in a pre-multimedia age. Early on, he built a four-foot-tall papier mache replica of the moon to illustrate for audiences how the satellite looked through a telescope. And he built tabletop planetaria that could display stars on the ceilings of people's living rooms.

As the operator of one of the country's few planetariums, he was acutely aware of how few people had access to it, and by the 1950s he had improved greatly on his first tabletop versions made from a lamp underneath a piece paper pocked with holes. He was building larger electric models with lamps inside plastic dodecahedrons (a shape recommended to him by Einstein) that could be turned accurately with motors. They were much more affordable than state-of-the-art planetariums of the time, and they also began to have features the older models didn't, like the ability to project planets and satellites. Spitz planetariums didn't require a building to be built to house them, and prior to Sputnik he sold a handful to schools and libraries. After Sputnik, he left the Institute to focus on his new thriving business: he had orders lined up for years for his new A3 model that used a metal sphere underneath a 30-foot dome.


Spitz's description of himself would fit Sauter: "I am not a mathematical astronomer. I don't get along with mathematical equations. I am not very much of a scientist. You can call me an interpreter of science if you want to."

Despite his teenage years with a telescope and planetarium at his disposal, Sauter had "come to the conclusion that studying astronomy required math," and he went to college at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. He majored in English; half his classes were in literature, and the other half were in natural sciences such as geology, meteorology, and astronomy.

Hanging out at the Cleveland Natural History Museum, he came up with a way to combine his interests as a museum educator, and he proposed working his senior year as an intern at the museum. "I said I'd be working my way through all the departments, including financing, exhibits and education. ... As it turned out, the director of the museum was looking for ways to collaborate with the university, and that's how I spent my last year of school. And they also had an observatory, and the very same Spitz A3P I'd had in high school."

Within three months of graduating college, he got a job at the Hartford Children's Museum as the curator of natural history. As a public outreach strategy, he became a regular on a locally broadcast live nature show, Ranger Andy Show. "A funny thing: years later I found out that it was a wildly popular show for business people, who'd watch it during happy hour at bars after work," he remembers. "Instead of sports on a Tuesday, Ranger Station came on at four before the news, and I'd come on holding boa constrictors and skunks. It was live, wild and full of really crazy stuff happening. Sometimes kids said the most terrible things."

When Ranger Andy died, the show was taken over by a former sportscaster. "He was a real sleazeball," Sauter said. "I'd show up early before the show with the animal I was going to talk about, and he'd start asking me all these questions. He sounded like he was interested, but then when we'd go live, he'd start telling me about the animal, or interrupting me to finish my stories. I was young, 23 or 24. It took me a while to realize what he was doing, and when I did, I started lying to him. I'd feed him information that wasn't true, so when he interrupted what I was saying about the great horned owl, I could say, 'Actually, no, that's not true.'"

From Hartford, he moved north to the Franklin Pember Museum of Natural History in Granville, N.Y. Later, after returning to school at UMass, he discovered the Valley and settled down to become a full-time father: "I thought that my babies were the most wonderful thing I'd seen in my life, and so I quit graduate school and became a homemaker for the next 20 years of my life. Eight years ago, I saw the ad in the Gazette for a part-time educator at the museum, and I thought, bingo."


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