Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Zeiss Mark VI

I gleefully entered the digital world in 1987 when I got my first CD player. Having been tortured for years with the delicate nature of 12" vinyl albums which typically show signs of wear after about five playings, at least with my less-than-delicate handling of them, the idea of a relatively indestructible medium that could take a licking and keep on ticking, thrilled me to no end. There were a few drawbacks as some discs simply wouldn't play on my finicky machine. I always thought that CD's sounded pretty great, contraary to the musings of audiophiiles who claimed that they missed the infinite gradations of sounds that digitally sampled music was lacking. The biggest loss for me and no doubt millions of music lovers with the decline of vinyl was the loss of the 12" canvas that record covers provided graphic designers, artists, and writers of album notes to ply their trade. I could write a book on the joys those things brought me as a young music enthusiast. Album notes and art didn't go away with the new dominance of the CD, but with the new six inch format, it was never the same.

The great conversion to digital in my own medium of photography, took longer. I bought my first digital camera, a point-and-shoot which I never considered to be more than a toy, in the late nineties. I was still shooting with a 4x5 view camera well into the first decade of the 21st century until it dawned on me that most of my images were ending up on a computer screen rather than in print form. At that point I gave up the tremendous expense of film and processing in favor of the convenience and practicality of digital photography. As digital resolution gets better and better every year, there are fewer reasons to shoot film, although many people still do. I probably would too if I didn't have a family that needed me at home rather than in the darkroom. As for image quality, well nothing will ever comapre to a fine gelatin silver black and white print made by a master of the medium such as Ansel Adams, but the truth is, the photography world moved beyond Uncle Ansel, as we called him in school, decades ago.

With every great invention, something is lost. Five years ago, I wrote about how most of us gladly give up quality for convenience. That's what the digital revolution is all about, and there is precious little than any of us can do about it, even if we wanted to, which most of us don't.

Anyway the other day I was stopped dead in my tracks by something that made me long for the good ol' days of analog with a vengeance. Some of my colleagues and I took a lovely field trip for a behind the scenes trip to the Adler Planetarium, which included a visit to one of their "sky shows." The first time I attended on of these shows was back in the seventies when I was still in high school. The centerpiece of the show was the most magnificent machine I had ever seen, a Zeiss Mark VI planetarium projector.

To give you an idea, here is a video produced by the Morehead Plaetarium and Science Center as a tribute to their Zeiss projector upon its retirement in 2011:

I could also write a book on the magnificence of this machine, maybe I will some day, but not today, this video should give you a pretty good idea. Suffice it to say the commanding presence of the Zeiss Mark VI rising into place in the center of the room was one of the highlights of a visit to any planetarium.

But that is only half the story. The Zeiss VI was capable of projecting an image of the nighttime sky on a planetarium hemisphere that was indistinguishable from the real thing. Actually is was far better than the real thing, at least here in Chicago where light pollution obscures all but the brightest stars and planets.  It was at a sky show at the Adler Planetarium where I fell in love with astronomy.

Well you no doubt can see where I'm going here. A colleague who used to work at the Adler told me that like the Morehead machine, the beautiful Adler Zeiss Mark VI was retired in 2011. But I had either forgot or refused to believe it, and assumed I'd be seeing my old friend after many years. So when I waked into the great hemisphere that is the planetarium the other day, I nearly cried when I realized that the marvelous piece of art and technology was no longer holding court in the center of the theater. I tried to reassure myself that they no doubt would have replaced the machine with a digital system that performed at least on a par with the old one.

I couldn't have been more wrong. The image projected by the new state of the art planetarium projection system looked well, like an image. Sure it would be good enough to learn the constellations  and it works OK as a backdrop for the images used for the sky show, but no one would ever confuse it with the real thing.

And then there's was the machine itself. Wikipedia has a table on the status of most of the Zeiss Planetarium projectors ever made and their fates. Most of them are retired. Why are they retiring them? According to my friend, the powers that be felt the new digital system would provide much more flexibility as far as the kind of shows they could produce, "enhancing the visual experience" in current day audio visual marketing-speak. The old machines also took a lot of upkeep to keep them going and required a specially trained person to operate them which I'm sure was another major factor in the reasoning to retire them.

Such is "progress".

But gosh those old machines sure were something.

Oh well once again, those were the days.

No comments: