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  • Chicago's Explorers

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, history, timeline, exhibit, Chicago's Explorers, Illinois, Midwest, ecology, education

    Created: 1/14/2016      Updated: 7/29/2016

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    The Chicago Academy of Sciences has been a leader in local ecology and scientific education for 159 years. To commemorate the anniversary of our founding on January 13, 1857, our new exhibit, "Chicago's Explorers," highlights the institution's scientific and educational activities. The exhibit will be on display at the Nature Museum through the end of February.

    Chicago's Explorers timeline and exhibit

    Specimens and photos on display in Chicago's Explorers exhibit

    Specimens on display in Chicago's Explorers exhibit

    Specimens and publications on display

    If you'd like to learn more about the Academy's history, check out our detailed timeline, which will continue to grow as we continue to explore. We hope you enjoy our exhibit and get out to explore nature in Chicago with us! 

    Dawn Roberts

    Director of Collections

    Chicago’s Explorers

     

    The Saloon Building in Chicago, 1839

    The Saloon Building in Chicago, 1839

    (Image courtesy of the Chicago History Museum)

    The Saloon Building is where Chicago’s first city government was formed and oversaw the fastest growing city in the world.  It was also here that a group of forward-thinking scientists, physicians, and business leaders founded The Chicago Academy of Natural Sciences on January 13, 1857.  Some of these founders had been a part of the Smithsonian Institution, which opened its doors just 11 years earlier.  The institution was incorporated in 1859 as “The Chicago Academy of Sciences,” which remains our institutional name today.

     

    Robert Kennicott Kennicott’s caribou shirt

    Robert Kennicott, ca. 1860 (left)  

    (Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

    Kennicott’s caribou shirt, ca. 1860 (right)

    The collections of Robert Kennicott formed the core of the Academy’s initial scientific collections.  His expansive studies of Illinois fauna resulted in the discovery of many species new to science, some of which were named after him by other scientists, including the stripe-tail darter (Etheostoma kennicotti) and the western screech owl (Otus kennicotti).  Kennicott also led the first U.S. scientific study of Russian America—the place that eventually became the state of Alaska.  He died there while on expedition, on May 13, 1866.

    1871

    The Great Chicago Fire consumed the city for three days from October 8 to 10, 1871.  On the final day, the fire approached the Academy.  The building was equipped with a fire proof vault and, with this in mind, staff quickly stored everything of importance there, expecting the building to be damaged but their valuable scientific collections and research notes to be saved.  The heat from the fire was so great that it melted the supports of an ornamental limestone cornice at the top of the building, causing it to fall and crash through the roof of the vault.  This structural failure allowed the fire to sweep inside and destroy the vault’s contents, along with the museum and most of the rest of the collections.

    Academy staff were devastated.  William Stimpson, the Academy’s director from 1866 to 1872 and a prominent malacologist (a scientist who studies shelled animals such as clams), lost his life’s work in the fire.  In just a few moments the “the Smithsonian of the West” and the fourth largest scientific collection in the country was gone, and the Academy’s future was in question.

     

    Matthew Laflin Memorial Building

    Matthew Laflin Memorial Building, 1894

    Following the fire, the scientific community and public rallied around the Academy.  Businessman and philanthropist Matthew Laflin was the primary funder for a new building, which opened on October 31, 1894 in Lincoln Park.  In this new space, much of the Academy’s earlier scientific work, including natural history collecting, was able to continue and a new emphasis was placed on community involvement.  This would be the Academy’s home for the next 100 years.

     

    Frank C. Baker in the field around Skokie, 1908

    Frank C. Baker in the field around Skokie, 1908

    At its founding, the Academy was one of only a few natural history museums in the nation.  As such, its purview extended from coast to coast.  As other similar institutions were founded, the Academy narrowed its scientific work to focus primarily on the Midwest and on specific kinds of organisms. Frank Baker, an Academy curator from 1894 to 1915 and prominent malacologist, conducted ecological surveys across Illinois and scientifically described many new species of snails.  Among his significant publications are The Mollusca of the Chicago Region, several papers on anatomy of Lymnaea (a group of common pond snails), and a taxonomy of the family Muricidae (a diverse group of sea snails).  Many of these publications are still relevant to malacological research today, and the historical record provided by Baker’s surveys gives us high-quality comparison data to assess how our local ecosystem has changed in the past hundred years.

     

    Academy staff developing a photographic enlargement for a diorama, ca. 1915

    Academy staff developing a photographic enlargement for a diorama, ca. 1915

    Traditionally, animal specimens were preserved as study skins or as crudely stuffed mounts.  Then, in the early 1910s, a man named Carl Akeley pioneered new specimen preparation techniques that enabled him to create more realistic displays.  The Academy also began to experiment with these ideas, and devised large, meticulously detailed dioramas as a new way to represent local species and natural areas.

    Frank Woodruff, an ornithologist, curator, and director at the Academy from 1896 to 1926, oversaw the development of the “Chicago Environs Series,” a group of exhibits that presented natural areas around Chicago.  His first life-size diorama, depicting the dunes ecosystem and the Calumet River, used photographs that were enlarged up to 11 feet high by 10 feet wide for the backdrops.  Here, Woodruff (in suspenders) and other Academy staff process one of these diorama backdrops.

     

    Academy field trip to Starved Rock State Park, ca. 1915

    Academy field trip to Starved Rock State Park, ca. 1915

    Field trips, like the one pictured here, were among the many ways the Academy actively included the Chicago community in its scientific work and promoted the appreciation of nature.  Students who accompanied Academy naturalist Henry Cowles to the Indiana Dunes gathered data that eventually resulted in his theory of ecological succession—the idea that a habitat naturally progresses (e.g. from pond to wetland to shrubland to forest) as certain species dominate resources and then die off.  In addition to offering field trips, the Academy’s innovative teacher training programs helped make Chicago’s teachers some of the most scientifically literate educators around, while lectures, films, and nature walks were popular with the broader community.  For local naturalist groups, the Academy provided a home with space to meet and experts to interact with.

    Leonara Gloyd in Arizona with a badger, 193Howard K. Gloyd in Arizona, 1937

    Leonara Gloyd in Arizona with a badger, 1937 (left)

    Howard K. Gloyd in Arizona, 1937 (right)

    Continuing efforts to document and study biodiversity, the Academy conducted several faunal surveys of the American Southwest between 1937 and 1946.  The specimens, photographs, and motion film brought back to Chicago were shared through public lectures and publications, providing many Chicagoans with their first look at this desert environment.  Spearheading the Arizona expeditions was Howard Gloyd, a herpetologist and director of the Academy from 1936 to 1958.  Among many other scientific advancements, Gloyd published “The Rattlesnakes:  Genera Sistrurus and Crotalus” and so defined North America’s most iconic snakes, including Illinois’ now-endangered Massasauga.  His wife, Leonara, studied dragonflies and accompanied him on at least one of the Arizona expeditions.

    William J. Beecher at a local beach along Lake Michigan with a reporter looking at birds killed by a major storm, 1969

    William J. Beecher at a local beach along Lake Michigan with a reporter looking at birds killed by a major storm, 1969

    During the 1960s and ‘70s, the Academy revitalized its exhibits and expanded its education and outreach programs to further focus on Midwestern ecology.  Under the leadership of William Beecher, director from 1958 to 1982 and an avid ornithologist and photographer, the Academy increased its involvement in local environmental issues, from preserving the Indiana Dunes to monitoring bird collisions with windows.  Beecher also implemented the Junior Academy of Sciences, a program aimed at middle and high school students to provide extracurricular learning opportunities for young people interested in science.  Today we still have active volunteers who began in the Junior Academy fifty years ago.

    Academy symposiums, 1988 to 1990

    Academy symposiums, 1988 to 1990

    Throughout its history, Academy lectures and symposiums have provided a venue for the community to learn about and be involved in scientific discussion.  From the 1970s to 1990s the focus shifted away from taxonomic research to address pressing environmental issues, science education practices, and urban biodiversity.  Among the influential meetings hosted by the Academy:

    • “The Chicago Urban Environmental Conference” (1977) helped coalesce the land stewardship movement in Chicago.
    • “Understanding Chimpanzees Symposium” (1986) and “Understanding Chimpanzees: Diversity and Survival” (1991) were attended by Jane Goodall and later credited by her as influencing to her work.
    • “Science Learning in the Informal Setting” (1987) highlighted the importance of experiential learning.
    • “Sustainable Cities Symposium: Preserving and Restoring Urban Biodiversity” (1990) was an early recognition of the role that urban habitat plays in conservation.

    Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 1999

    Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 1999 

    (Photo credit Dan Rest)

    After 100 years in the Laflin Building, the Academy opened the doors to its new, larger home in Lincoln Park, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, in October 1999.  The Nature Museum provided the Academy a fresh venue through which to engage its audiences and continue to address the local environment in its exhibits, programs, and research.

    Examples of Academy conservation work, 2001 to 2015, including butterflies, fieldwork and squirrels

    Academy conservation work, 2001 to 2015

    Since 2001, the Academy has been leading conservation efforts for a variety of local, threatened species.   In the Istock Family Butterfly Conservation Lab, thousands of rare butterflies are bred for release, including the Swamp Metalmark (Calephelis muticum) and Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia).  Partnering with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Academy staff have raised and released 236 baby Blanding’s turtles into the Chicago Wilderness region.  Just this past fall, an Academy scientist found a hatchling Blanding’s turtle in the wild—the first one recorded within the project area since 1998. 

    Conservation efforts at the Academy include both animal husbandry and wild population monitoring, the success of which is largely due to the active participation of volunteer citizen scientists.  Today, the Academy leads several citizen science initiatives: the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, Project Squirrel, and The Calling Frog Survey.  Award-winning lesson plans, teacher development courses, and public programs build on and support the Academy’s conservation efforts.

    Explore nature in Chicago with us!

    Chicago is an urban area, and yet, nature exists all around us.  What kind of nature is in your backyard or neighborhood?  How do you interact with nature?  Share your urban nature experiences with us through social media, #urbannature.

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  • Fire in the Metropolitan Block

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, history

    Created: 6/7/2015      Updated: 8/1/2016

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    Years before the Chicago Academy of Sciences called the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building home, it resided in the Metropolitan Block located in downtown Chicago. Though the Academy was still very young, by 1864 its collection had grown so much that it outgrew the space it occupied on the corner of Clark and Lake. It was at that point that the Academy made the move into the Metropolitan Block at the corner of LaSalle and Randolph, along with a variety of other businesses and corporations. While there was some space for specimens to be displayed, the space wasn’t ideal for creating museum space for the public. Despite this, for two years the Academy called the Metropolitan Block home, until one fateful day in June 1866.

    Map of Washington and LaSalle intersection in downtown Chicago, circa 1893.
    View of Metropolitan Block (building number 13) circa 1893 from Rand, McNally & Co.'s Birds-Eye Views and Guide to Chicago

    On June 7, 1866, a fire broke out on the north end of the Block in rooms adjacent to the Academy’s rooms and moved to the museum hall. At the time of the fire, the Academy’s collection consisted of 40,000 specimens, making it one of the largest scientific collections in the United States at the time. Sadly, of the 40,000 specimens housed there, over 18,000 were destroyed or badly damaged. Acting as Academy Curator following the sudden death of Robert Kennicott in May 1866, Dr. William Stimpson sadly reported, “Half the animals and birds were lost; the extensive collections of bird’s nests and eggs were mainly consumed; nearly all the insects were destroyed; the dried crustaceans and echinoderms were all destroyed. The large herbarium was saved, with the exception of the plants of the Northern Pacific expedition. The library was much damaged by water, but most of it was still in a condition to be used.”

    Stimpson endeavored to repair and preserve the damaged pieces by transporting them to a building on LaSalle and Lake. The focus turned to repairing the Metropolitan Block space for the interim and finding a permanent space to move into. The specimen wall cases were repaired and several new cases for specimen storage were constructed, turning the space into a taxidermy prep room. Because the space was meant to be temporary, little focus was put on exhibitions for the public, with only a few cases being reserved for that purpose.

    A lot on Wabash north of Van Buren was purchased and a new building made of brick and iron was erected at the cost of $46,000. In an effort to protect the Academy’s invaluable collections, this structure was built “as nearly fire-proof as the technology of the time permitted.” The stairways and principal doors were made of iron, the windows featured iron shutters, and the brick walls were two feet thick. A laboratory and storeroom were located in the basement, while the first floor consisted of space for the secretary, an office, library, and meeting hall. The second floor consisted of a larger museum hall with two galleries. In December of 1867, the collection, which had continued to grow, was moved into its new home.

    Resources:

    Chicago, A Strangers and Tourists Guide to the City of Chicago. 1866.

    Chicago and the Great Conflagration. Elias Colbert. 1872.

    The Chicago Academy of Sciences: Its Past History and Present Collections. Vol. 2. Frank Collins Baker. 1908.

    History of Chicago: From 1857 until the fire of 1871. Alfred Theodore Andreas. 1885.

    The Nautilus, Volumes 7-9. 1893-1894.

    Special Publication – Chicago Academy of Sciences, Volumes 1-3. 1902.

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  • "Fieldwork is the Lifeblood of Museums": Remembering Alfred M. Bailey

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    Tags: Alfred M. Bailey, Chicago Academy of Sciences, history, ornithology

    Created: 2/16/2015      Updated: 8/2/2016

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    If you're familiar with the Chicago Academy Sciences and our history, then chances are good that you've heard the name Alfred M. Bailey before. For just shy of a decade, Bailey was Director of the Academy, and added some invaluable specimens to our ornithology collection...but who exactly was he?

    Edward Ford, Alfred M. Bailey and William I. Lyon standing on a pier

    Edward Ford, Alfred M. Bailey and William I. Lyon
    Chicago Academy of Sciences Archive, Photography Collection.

    Alfred Marshall Bailey was born on this day in 1894 in Iowa City, Iowa. He graduated from the University of Iowa in 1916, and as an undergrad worked in a government-sponsored expedition to the Hawaiian Island of Laysan. From here, he quickly became involved in the world of museums. From 1916 to 1919 he worked as the curator of birds and mammals at the Louisiana State Museum, and from 1921 to 1926 he worked at the Denver Museum of Natural History, before making the move to the Midwest.

    In 1926, Bailey came to Chicago to join the Field Museum, but after a year, he made the move to the Chicago Academy of Sciences where he was appointed Director of the Academy. During the nine years he spent as Director, Bailey continued to focus on ornithology, organizing trips back to Louisiana to capture still and motion photography of migrating birds. He also organized trips to Alaska and, working with collectors there, collected birds and bird eggs. This culminated in the publication of the Academy’s Program of Activities “Birds of the Region of Point Barrow, Alaska” in 1933.

    Alfred M. Bailey in a field filming birds in Louisiana.

    Alfred M. Bailey (with camera) filming birds in Louisiana. 
    Chicago Academy of Sciences Archive, Photography Collection.

    When Bailey resigned from the Academy, he returned to the Denver Museum of Natural History where he was appointed Director, a position he held until 1969. He remained involved with the Denver Museum until his death in 1978.

    In his obituary for Bailey, Allan R. Phillips detailed that Bailey’s credo was “fieldwork is the lifeblood of natural history museums and he himself was a leading fieldman.” This extensive fieldwork not only produced Academy publications, it also resulted in some prized pieces of our ornithology collection. Some of the specimens in our collection were collected as part of Bailey’s work to document avian diversity in his book Birds of Arctic Alaska. In addition to those specimens, we also have a large number of Bailey’s photographs in our archives that were taken during his trips across the United States and Canada. To see some of them, check out this blog post.

    To learn more about Bailey’s life and work, check out these resources:

    Allan R. Phillips, “In Memoriam: Alfred M. Bailey”, The Auk Vol. 98, No. 1 (Jan., 1981), pp. 173-175

    Papers of Alfred M. Bailey – University of Iowa Libraries

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  • The Work of William Stimpson

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    Tags: william stimpson, Chicago Academy of Sciences, history, founders

    Created: 2/10/2015      Updated: 8/2/2016

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    Although February 14 is recognized as Valentine’s Day, it’s a special day to the Nature Museum for another reason. It’s also the birthday of William Stimpson, a major force in the creation and establishment of the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

    William Stimpson

    Born on February 14, 1832 in Boston, Stimpson seems to have been born with a love of nature. By the age of 14, he’d begun independently exploring geology and invertebrates. Despite this love of the natural world, Stimpson found himself pushed toward engineering by his father who believed there was no money to be had in the scientific field. While Stimpson begrudgingly obeyed his wishes for a couple of years, by 1850 he was studying under the prodigious biologist/geologist Louis Agassiz at Cambridge. Two years later, he was appointed naturalist of the North Pacific Exploring Expedition. He was only 20 years old. He remained with the Expedition for four years, collecting 5,300 specimens and making special notes and drawings of over 3,000 specimens. You can read his report on the crustacea collected during the expedition here.

    Nautilus drawn by William Stimpson
    William Stimpson, Nautilus Drawing, US Pacific Expedition, Aug 14, 1853
     

    Upon his return, he began studying at the Smithsonian, later becoming the head of the invertebrates department. It was here where he met Robert Kennicott, the naturalist who’d begun to make a name for himself by cataloging the fauna of his home state of Illinois. In 1865, Stimpson was widely recognized as the leading American authority on aquatic invertebrates. It was at this time that his old pal Robert Kennicott called on him to join the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

    Kennicott was about to leave on expedition to Alaska and appointed Stimpson to take his place as Curator of the Academy, as well as Academy Secretary. Stimpson not only brought a new energy to this role, he also brought much of the collection he built during the course of his own personal research, as well as what he collected while with the Smithsonian. When Kennicott died while on expedition, Stimpson was elected to take his place as Director of the Academy. Through Stimpson’s leadership, the Academy’s collection grew to be the fourth largest in the country, with only the Smithsonian’s collection as its rival in importance. Sadly, it was lost during the Great Chicago Fire – a loss that Stimpson never fully recovered from.

    Stimpson died of tuberculosis just nine months after the Great Fire. Although he had been working to rebuild the collection, he was in poor health, and the loss of his life’s work weighed on him heavily. Despite the incredible loss, Stimpson never regretted his decision to join the Academy. In a letter to his secretary he said:

    But had I lost twice as much, I shall never regret coming to Chicago, for I have found there noble and generous friends, not only to myself, but friends to science and such as no other city in America can boast; and of more value to me than worldly possessions will be the memory of the friendly experiences I have had with yourself and the other trustees and the friends of the Academy, while we together built up a monument which, though now leveled with the dust, will long live in scientific history.

    William Stimpson

    Sources:

    Josiah Seymour Currey, Chicago: Its History and Its Builders…: 157
    Alfred Goldsborough Mayer, “Biographical Memoir of William Stimpson”, Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences: 419-433
    Special Publication – Chicago Academy of Sciences, Volumes 1 & 2
    “William Stimpson”, Spencer Baird and Icthyology at the Smithsonian


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  • Looking Back on the "Background for Tomorrow"

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, history, film

    Created: 12/4/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    Chicago has been a part of the film industry since it began. At the turn of the century, a few of the largest, most popular film studios called Chicago home. Unfortunately, after the West Coast was established as the center of the industry and the studio system was established in the early 1920s, many of these Windy City-based organizations moved west or went out of business. One company that didn’t, however, was the Atlas Educational Film Company. Based out of Oak Park, the company was formed in 1913 with the focus of making educational and industrial films. Many of their films were done in association with the Farm Bureau Federation, but one in particular featured many of Chicago’s museums, including The Chicago Academy of Sciences.

    Atlas Educational Film Company headquarters

    Atlas Educational Film Company headquarters circa 1920

    Sponsored by the Chicago Association of Commerce, the film was called “Background for Tomorrow” and it was produced in 1942. Written by John Gould Curtis and directed by Bertram Bates, the film was sold as a feature-length talkie that focused on telling the story of the exhibits, as well as the behind the scenes activities of several notable Chicago museums. The Chicago Academy of Sciences, The Field Museum, The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, the Chicago Historical Society, and The Museum of Science and Industry were the featured institutions, with schools, churches, parent teacher associations and similar organizations as the target audience.     

    Atlas crew shooting in CAS main exhibit hall

    Atlas crew shooting in CAS main exhibit hall

    Filming began at the Academy on May 1, 1942. As detailed in the Chicago Naturalist Volume 5, Number 1, the Atlas team shot exteriors of the building, a visit to the Director’s office, and several scenes in the main exhibit hall. The behind the scenes footage included a look into how habitat groups were constructed, in addition to the process of preparing celluloid leaves and installing them in an exhibit.

    By the end of the year, the Atlas team had completed filming and production, and the film was released. The Educational Screen reviewed it for its January 1943 issue, and praised it for its ability to present museums as “live educational centers teeming with activity and wielding a powerful influence on the minds and thoughts of millions that come within visual range of their intellectual treasures.” It also highlighted the film’s efforts to “show how events and developments from the remotest past to the present day furnish the experiential basis for still richer future for the human race. Those who still incline to think of museums as merely mortuaries for dead facts of the past should see this picture. It is a revelation of what museums really are and what they can mean to children and adults alike.”

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  • Who is Matthew Laflin?

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, history, founders, matthew laflin, laflin building

    Created: 11/24/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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    Before the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum building was built, the Chicago Academy of Sciences made its home in the Matthew Laflin Memorial Building.

    Matthew Laflin portrait

    211 years ago, on December 16, 1803,  Matthew Laflin was born. Though he was born on the East Coast, he will always be recognized as a Chicago pioneer. His father was in the gunpowder business and Laflin followed in his footsteps. In fact, it was gunpowder that first brought him to Chicago. When construction of the Illinois and Michigan Canal began in 1837, Laflin came west, eager to supply the Canal’s construction company with gunpowder. It was his first visit to the young city, but he recognized the potential it had. In the following two years, he established a western presence for the Saugerties Powder Works and took charge of all its western sales, establishing plants in and around the Chicago area.

    After selling his stock and severing ties with the gunpowder industry, Laflin turned his attention to real estate. He began purchasing land in and around the city. With the $900 he made by selling his gunpowder stock, he purchased nine acres of land, later selling it for $4,000. While he purchased land for hundreds of dollars, and sold it for thousands, he lived to see it worth millions.

    In addition to being a real estate tycoon, he helped establish the city’s first stockyards, aided in founding the Chicago Board of Trade, held a controlling interest in the city water works, and helped refinance the Elgin Watch Company.

    Matthew Laflin portrait

    While he was a pioneering influence in the city as a whole, we remember him for the generosity he showed the Chicago Academy of Sciences at a time when it was in need of some major financial help. In October of 1871, the Academy was dealt a crushing blow when its building and holdings were decimated in the Great Fire. The Academy worked to regroup, finally moving into the lakefront Interstate Exposition Building in 1885 (this building was later destroyed to make way for the Art Institute of Chicago). While this gave the Academy a public face, it was only a temporary solution, so the Academy’s Board of Trustees turned its attention to rebuilding.

    In October of 1892, Laflin gave the Academy the help it was looking for. Through his son George, Laflin offered to give the Academy $75,000 towards the construction of a new museum, on the condition that an agreement could be reached for the Lincoln Park Commissioners to provide the land and $25,000 to be used for completion. An agreement was made, and the new building’s keystone was laid in October of 1893. Upon its opening on October 31, 1894, the building was dedicated to Laflin.

    Matthew Laflin Memorial Building

    Although the Academy’s collections are no longer housed in the Laflin Memorial Building, the building remains an important part of our legacy, and symbolizes an important turning point in our history.

    For more information, check out the Magazine of Western History, Volume 14.

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  • The Atwood Celestial Sphere -- A Centennial Anniversary

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    Tags: Chicago Academy of Sciences, Atwood Celestial Sphere, Archives, education, astronomy, exhibits, science, history, planetarium

    Created: 6/21/2013      Updated: 8/9/2016

    In June 1913, the Chicago Academy of Sciences presented an exhibit to its visitors unlike any other.  It was a planetarium where, unlike others of the time period, visitors could walk inside to experience the night sky while the apparatus rotated around them.

    Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building

    Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building, c1926

    The Atwood Celestial Sphere was designed by and named for Wallace W. Atwood, who served on the Academy’s Board and briefly as Acting Director of the museum. Mr. LaVerne W. Noyes, President of the Board of Trustees, had the structure crafted by his company, Aermotor Windmill Company, and donated it to the Academy.

    Wallace W. Atwood inside the Atwood Celestial Sphere

    Wallace W. Atwood inside the Atwood Celestial Sphere

     

    Atwood Celestial Sphere

    Atwood Celestial Sphere, c1913

     

    The sphere, constructed of a thin galvanized sheet metal, was only 15 feet in diameter.  Tiny perforations in the exterior of the sphere allowed light to penetrate, appearing as stars to those viewing from the inside. Atwood designed the celestial sphere to portray the stellar sky as seen from Chicago and visitors would watch as the sun, moon, and stars rotated around them in simulation of Earth’s orbit through the solar system. The sphere was utilized heavily for educational programs at the Academy. School groups, clubs, and other visitors would tour the sphere, with programs often led by Atwood himself during his time with the Academy. 

    Wallace W. Atwood with children inside the Celestial Sphere

    Wallace W. Atwood with children inside the Celestial Sphere

     

    The stars were positioned with such mathematical precision that in 1941, the U.S. Navy began incorporating use of the Atwood Sphere in navigational training exercises for the U.S. Naval Reserve Unit stationed on the Chicago Campus of Northwestern University. Modifications were made to the Sphere to accommodate these trainings, including the installation of a meridian (an arc that follows the circumference of the sphere and passed through the zenith) and movable arm with which to measure the zenith angle – the distance between the zenith (the point directly overhead) and any star.

    Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building

    Atwood Celestial Sphere at the Academy’s Laflin Memorial Building, c1920s

     

    In the 1960s, the Academy began extensive redesign of its exhibits and developing life zone dioramas created by William Beecher and Academy staff. The exterior of the Atwood Celestial Sphere was painted to look like the Earth and the ceiling of the Laflin Building painted to look like the night sky to blend more readily with the new exhibits.

    Thurston Wright working on the Atwood Celestial Sphere

    Thurston Wright working on the Atwood Celestial Sphere, c1950s

     

    Atwood Celestial Sphere with the exterior painted to look like Earth

    Atwood Celestial Sphere with the exterior painted to look like Earth, c1960s. William Beecher in the foreground and Thurston Wright in the background.

     

    The Atwood Celestial Sphere was transferred to the Adler Planetarium in 1995 when the Academy vacated its Laflin Building, where it currently resides.

    Dawn Roberts
    Collections Manager

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