I got a phone call from New York. Bruce King told me he had arrived from New Zealand, and had an astronomical invention that he wanted to show me. He hoped to start a small enterprise rather as I had done.
What was his product? He said it was a sort of portable planetarium; three-dimensional, could show the sky for any place and time, yet could be carried in the hand. I struggled to visualize it and couldn’t, and he left it that way so that I would be the more impressed when I saw it.
He arrived in South Carolina, opened his box, which was itself a fine piece of his craftsmanship in wood, and took out his device.
It’s a ball made of – I’ll call it rubber, though it may be some other flexible material. I still have it, and it may have become a little limp. The ball is eight inches in diameter, like the Sun in my Thousand-Yard Model of the Solar System. On it are printed the stars and constellation form-lines. But the ball looks like only half a ball, because inside it is a metal ring, a hoop. By pushing one half inward, so that the hoop forms a rim, the sphere has been converted to a hemisphere.
That’s the way it came, and I don’t think I could pull the pushed-in half back out (it only begins to come, with reluctance and a warning squelchy sound), because there’s no air inside. You can see a seam, around the celestial equator, where the two halves of the sphere were joined after the hoop was inserted, and a sealed hole at the north pole where the air was extracted.
So what is shown in the concave half is a celestial hemisphere, seen the right way around, with the stars in the right relative positions. This is different from an ordinary celestial globe of transparent material, which rests on a stand and has the star map inverted on the outside, so that you have to peer through the nearer side toward the farther in order to see the constellations the right way. Older non-transparent celestial globes, such as the ancient Farnese one, had to have the constellations drawn on the outside, as on the outer view of the flexible globe, and then the problem was whether to draw them in their right relations as seen from Earth in the center – which would make their shapes reversed as seen from outside.
The edge made by the internal hoop is the horizon. And the key quality is that, since the globe is made of pliable rubber, you can manipulate it, roll the rubber around, so as to set the hoop-horizon for any place at any time!
Any latitude, any date of the year, any time of the night.
Even any precessional epoch of the remote past or future, though you would have to imagine the line of the equator, which is the join-seam of the globe’s halves, in its precessionally shifted places. You could use the hoop-rim to represent, instead of the horizon, the equator of another precessional epoch, so as to visualize the skies of remote ages.
The ecliptic is marked, with the dates where the Sun is on Jan. 1, 5, 10, and so on, which helps in setting the positions if you know how.
In my photos, the globe is set, on the outside for a mid-northern latitude and for the sidereal time when Orion is rising.
The device is really a planisphere, but a three-dimensional one, more ingenious, more complete – more flexible, in a word! – than the traditional planisphere. Bruce had yet to solve the technical problem of the mass printing of the celestial map onto the flexible sphere.
I found Bruce and his girlfriend a place to sleep in my friend Judy’s house.
This was in the spring when Comet West (C/1975 V1) had come up from the south. It came only two years after Comet Kohoutek, whose early exaggeration by the media had caused the public to be disappointed, so now the media paid no attention and most of the public missed what could have been the sky-spectacle of their lives – a comet that some call the most beautiful of the twentieth century.
I camped out in a meadow where I had a vegetable garden, behind the Furman campus. I woke in the pre-dawn to start looking eastward; the comet was in Pegasus. The sky was cloudless – except, damn it, for one wisp of cloud above the outline of Paris Mountain, in exactly the place to hide the comet!
Then I realized that that wisp of cloud was not a wisp of cloud: it was the many-million-mile tail of the great comet! The comet’s body was still below the horizon.
I hoped that Bruce, Jessica, and Judy would get up and come out in time to see it before the dawn brightened. They did; I was still lying gazing at it when their gray forms came uncertainly stepping through the damp weeds behind me.
Bruce sought a commercial name for his rubber plani-hemi-sphere. I already called it Star Hat. But he named it nothing more original than Night Star. He set up his Night Star Company at Santa Cruz in California.
He diversified a bit, selling other astronomical goods, and after a few years he told me it was time for a change, and went back to New Zealand, leaving his business, which had moved to Ashland, Oregon, to one of his associates, Richard Moeschl.
Exactly thirty years after Comet West, a column by E.C. Krupp in Sky & Telescope, 2006 March, on Omar Khayyâm’s “Bowl of Night,” mentioned “the Nightstar Company’s vinyl star globes… available in the late 1980s,” with a small photo that didn’t make clear the three-dimensional nature.