Thomas Jefferson’s ca. 1819 Rotunda Planetarium designs called for a mystifying (and dangerous) boom-and-pulley system that would lift an operator to adjust stars pinned to the Rotunda’s concave ceiling.

“The concave ceiling of the Rotunda,” he wrote, “is proposed to be painted sky-blue and spangled with gilt stars in their position and magnitude copied exactly.” As designed, the Rotunda’s ceiling would represent the night sky in real time with mock constellations tracing their annual progress across a wood-and-plaster firmament.

Jefferson’s drawings (the only surviving documentary evidence of the Rotunda Planetarium) are bound in a small pamphlet volume containing Jefferson’s notes and preparatory sketches for the University of Virginia. This pamphlet is held at the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library on UVa’s grounds (UVa MS 171).

Jefferson was evidently still considering this plan as late as July 1824, when he wrote to John Vaughan, the librarian of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, asking if there were “such a thing as a Fresco painter in Phila.?” “We shall need one to paint the cieling of our Rotunda,” Jefferson added. In response, Vaughan informed Jefferson that, “there is no professed Painter of that Branch” in Philadelphia and that he would have to look elsewhere, perhaps even employing an artist from abroad.

Here, the documentary trail runs cold. Presumably, faced with ballooning costs and persistent delays in the Rotunda’s construction, Jefferson abandoned the idea, and in consequence the Rotunda Planetarium was never realized (the Rotunda Library opened two years later, capped by an unadorned dome).

Our Rotunda Planetarium trades Jefferson’s fresco painter and boom (“a white oak sapling of proper strength [!]” moved on “a compound joint admitting motion in any direction”) for an array of carefully calibrated digital projectors—keeping Rotunda Planetarium visitors and University staff safely earthbound!

Over the coming months, we will post updates, anecdotes, and discoveries here narrating the development and installation of the Rotunda Planetarium. Stay tuned!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *