Buhl Planetarium

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Planetariums Come to Pittsburgh

I n 1930, Leo became a member of the Academy of Science and Art of Pittsburgh, an organization founded (by Henry Thaw and John Brashear, among others) to foster public interest in science and the arts. During his first years as an Academy member, he attended many lectures and travelogues covering a wide range of subjects and locales, but discovered that there was only an occasional lecture on astronomy. It was through the travelogues that Leo acquired in interest in world geography, cultures and archeology. "No matter where someone had taken a tour and talked about it, I always asked if they had seen or done so- and-so," he recalled. Leo was soon appointed a Counselor for the Academy, a position he held for 42 years.

Leo at Buhl
Leo (2nd from left) on the steps of the newly opened Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science with several colleagues
(AAAP Archives)
During that period, five AAAP members drove out to Chicago to learn more about the new concept of planetariums by visiting the recently constructed Adler Planetarium. Upon returning to Pittsburgh, Leo and several others prepared a glowing report about the planetarium's enormous potential as a teaching aid. They presented their ideas to the Academy of Science & Art governing council, in hopes that somebody might support the construction of a new planetarium in Pittsburgh. The council was impressed with the report and suggested that the AAAP become an official "section" of the Academy to give the club greater credibility in advocating for planetarium funding. Leo helped organized the new Academy section. However, the Depression temporarily thwarted any immediate hopes of funding the project.

Interest in construction of a planetarium remained strong through the early 30's, and was amply demonstrated when Leo and his small band of AAAP members set up an astronomy and telescope making display in the Boggs & Buhl department store on the North Side. The exhibit was a spectacular success with the general public and attracted thousands of curious visitors, so much so that it was held over well past its planned 2-week schedule. (Within a few years, a similar AAAP exhibit would attract attention on a much more conspicuous stage.)

In 1935, the Buhl Foundation announced its intention to fund the construction of a planetarium in Pittsburgh. Leo and several other AAAP members were invited to sit in on the planning meetings for the new facility, to be officially known as the Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science. As a result of these sessions, the AAAP was invited to set up its optical workshop in the basement of the planetarium, in exchange for holding a series of regularly scheduled public star parties using the rooftop 10" siderostat telescope.

At the grand opening of the Planetarium, Leo (wearing a tux) served as a greeter and met much of the high society of the Pittsburgh area. "I felt at home in my tuxedo with the guests," he said.

Lectures and Debates

Leo served as a telescope making instructor at the Planetarium for three years, and also gave general lectures in astronomy between 1939 and 1940, typically to school groups on Saturday mornings. He took a leave of absence in 1940 to marry Margaret Schwarz, whom he had met when she accompanied a high school group to visit his observatory. He resumed his teaching duties in 1946, once again as an instructor in telescope making. With respect to the 10" siderostat (or "horizontal refractor" as he called it), Leo was responsible for scheduling AAAP members to operate the telescope on available clear evenings.

A recurrent theme of Leo's talks was the difference between astronomy and astrology. Leo noted, "I had a sneaking suspicion that the public thought that they were one and the same – and this we intended to correct". Toward that end, he and other AAAP members arranged a symposium, called "The Fallacy of Astrology," and invited the following to attend: A medical doctor, a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest, a practicing astrologer and a professional astronomer (who turned out to be the famous J. Allen Hynek from Ohio Wesleyan University). As for astrology: "They sent a lady, whom I pitied, and her son to defend themselves." The lady was Mrs. Martha E. Knotts, secretary of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Astrological Society. Leo and Mrs. Knotts were interviewed by the local papers, and as for the actual debate, Leo noted: "I don't think either side made any converts, but we certainly did make noise about the differences between science and credulity."

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