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Arcturus Spinoff

Sometimes nice things happen without warning. A few days after my recent article appeared, about using light from the star Arcturus to generate a current that lit up the 1933 “Century of Progress Exposition” in Chicago, I received a letter from Ralph Mansfield, whom I did not know. I am reprinting the letter verbatim:

“Your piece about Arcturus struck a chord. The 1933 Century of Progress Arcturus feat was supposed to be a coordinated effort by Yerkes and Harvard observatories with a signal transmitted via Western Union to the science Pavilion at the Century of Progress in Chicago. The idea originated with Edwin Frost at Yerkes and Philip Fox at the Adler Planetarium. Frost and Fox were apprehensive about the possibility of clouds obscuring Arcturus and took the precaution of establishing a telescope to guide it to Arcturus, and Philip Fox told the assembled audience what was to occur. The only signal from Yerkes and Harvard indicated cloud cover. Thus I was the individual who captured the Arcturus light to transmit to the photocell and then to a solenoid that completed the electrical switching of the lighting ceremony. I was then a Planetarium guide but went on afterward to become a mathematics professor at several Chicago colleges. I am now long retired and reside at Oakmont Gardens.”

I feel that this bit of history, which has long been one of my favorite astronomical anecdotes, is too precious to be lost, and should be shared. What a thrill to learn that the man who pressed that key more than 70 years ago lives less than five miles from my home! I found his name in the phone book and called him at once in hopes of meeting him.

Although I was only with him a few hours, I found Dr. Mansfield to be a very interesting person. In his nineties, he is still active on the tennis court, and still alert and curious about the universe in which we all live. I am told he has been a guest lecturer at meetings of the Sonoma County Astronomical Society on a number of occasions. He also reminded me that a slight complication of the Arcturus Feat is the fact that Yerkes and Harvard are in different time zones, which had to be taken into account in their planning.

His mention of the Adler Planetarium “struck a chord” of my own. In 1945 I was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Training Station, near Chicago, and visited the planetarium one very clear and extremely cold day. Lake Michigan was frozen; the ice slowly rose and fell, as though the lake were breathing. The setting sun shone through the heavy, cut-glass doors. The beveled edges of each glass panel acted like prisms. The result: A colorful display inside the building. The image of those beautiful spectra all over the otherwise darkened lobby has remained in my memory ever since. I must not have been the only one impressed, because Mr. Mansfield informed me that the room has since been named the Rainbow Lobby.

The article “Arcturus” appeared in the July 1, 2004 edition of the Kenwood Press; if you no longer have your copy, you may also find it on my website,

© 2004, by Nathan B. Miron, Ph.D.

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