Chicago at Night and History of the Planetarium

In Chicago at night, reference to the sky is most often for the architecture of the skyline and the lights. I must confess, the skyline of Chicago at night is one of my favorite sights in all the world. Chicago’s skyline, however, overshadows the sky itself. So let’s set the buildings aside a moment to explore Chicago’s night sky. Looking up in Chicago at night today, we see very few stars. It is one of my least favorite things about Chicago.

So I took myself on a trip to the Adler Planetarium during one of its free days. At America’s first planetarium, people often flock to one of its theaters for a show, either from the historic Zeiss projector or the more modern options. I preferred, however, to explore the museum, where I experienced the difficulty of a moon jump and played as an ancient astronomer with telescopes and other early observation tools. It was here I stumbled upon the Atwood Sphere, a metal sphere that demonstrates the sky of Chicago at night, circa 1913. That is, Chicago’s night sky… back when it had stars!

chicago at night adler planetarium
Photo Credit: Elizabeth S. Tieri

The Atwood Sphere

Though the guided tour of the Atwood Sphere is an additional ticket, it is well worth the mere $6. You get to experience the charm and wonder of astronomy over 100 years ago. When you step into this metal sphere, it closes around you so that you are essentially sitting inside a metal ball. The Atwood Sphere is precisely perforated to allow the light of the museum to shine through in the otherwise dark interior. These light dots represent exactly the celestial bodies that were once visible from Chicago–692 to be exact. The sphere turns around you to display an entire year’s rotation. Our guide pointed out different constellations and planets as they circled over our faux sky.

After the creaking contraption opens up and you hop back into present-day technology, just past the sphere is an exhibit on light pollution. Light pollution in Chicago means that Chicago at night has lost a vast majority of the stars. This whole experience was so cool. It has me hooked and inspired me to dig a little deeper into the history of the sphere and the planetarium.

The Adler Planetarium is housed in a twelve-sided building with a large dome for the Zeiss projector’s show. This style of dome has become synonymous with planetariums nowadays, but it was a new concept in the early 20th century. More often, people over history have learned about stars on maps and globes They had to view the heavens from an outer perspective of two dimensions. Projections on a dome allowed viewers to see the sky as we see it from Earth–that is, from below. This approach is what made the Atwood Sphere such an approachable tool in learning astronomy as well.

Laflin Memorial Building from 1893

Early accounts of the experience in 1913 brag about the ability to study the stars without concern for weather or time, “turning the sky about at will, or causing the stars to stand still in their tracks.” By the ’30s, the Atwood Sphere had lost its luster in Chicago. Though the U.S. Navy used it for teaching navigation in the ’40s, the Chicago Daily News featured the Atwood Sphere in its 1956 White Elephant Festival.

chicago neo-classical lincoln park Laflin Memorial Building
Photo Credit: Elizabeth S. Tieri

The Atwood Sphere was originally housed in Chicago’s first natural history museum, the Laflin Memorial Building. Today it is part of the Lincoln Park Zoo. Our Chicago Highlights Tour cruises right past both the zoo and building. Matthew Laflin was an early settler of Chicago who had lived in Fort Dearborn and made a good deal of money off real estate holdings. In 1893 he donated to the Chicago Academy of Sciences to build Chicago’s first natural history museum. Laflin insisted the museum should be free to allow equal access for everyone to its natural history collections. Looking at the building’s architecture, we see columns and a pediment, which are classical features. This architectural style was very prominent during and after the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

The Atwood Sphere has been altered and moved about over history, but it’s great to see it restored to its original glory at the Adler Planetarium. The ride into the Atwood Sphere will not only let you marvel at the stars but also–I hope–motivate you to turn off a light or two in combat of the changes to the stars we see in Chicago at night.

— Elizabeth Tieri, Chicago Detours Tour Guide


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Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

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Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

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With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


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Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


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Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

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Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
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Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

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