Anonymous Astronomer: Alastair Wiper Learns About Eise Eisinga and the World’s Oldest Planetarium

Oct 16, 2019
Photographer Spotlight

When I see scientific or artistic work from hundreds of years ago, I'm often struck by the ingenuity needed to create something which lasts for centuries. Think about it: the resources available to the Da Vincis, Galileos, and Michelangelos of the world pale in comparison to what’s at our disposal. Yet these geniuses made substantial advancements in numerous fields that still resonate to this day.

So blue

You probably wouldn’t think to include Eise Eisinga on the above list of cultural heavyweights, but that may change after you hear his story. Eisinga, a Dutch wool merchant with an elementary school level education, constructed what is considered to be the world’s oldest working planetarium on the ceiling of his living room between 1774 – 1781. Denmark’s Alastair Wiper went to the Netherlands to shoot the imagery for this story, which ran in the August edition of Patek Philippe magazine.

I was contacted by Emmanuelle Peri, Director of Photography at Bookmark Content, which produces the Patek Philippe magazine. She said she had been following my work for a while and wanted me to shoot this for the magazine. She told me about the planetarium, and it sounded right up my alley — technology mixed with architecture, and a healthy dose of eccentricity thrown in.

If I don't put this in Bill will tear me a new one

The way that Eise Eisinga built this thing in his living room out of parts that he himself made is a testament to humankind and our ability to get completely obsessed with things.

Part of the charm of this story is the relative anonymity of everything. For one, the planetarium is located in Franeker, a town of roughly 12,000 people about 75 miles north of Amsterdam — and a place Alastair didn’t really know about before the project.

This house has hipped gables, as it were

I had never heard of the planetarium before or been to Franeker. It’s a tiny place, not somewhere you would normally make a trip to unless you had a reason. But it was a nice little town.

For another, if you Google the phrase “well-known astronomers,” you’ll see familiar names like Copernicus, Kepler, Einstein, and Hawking, but no Eisinga in sight. Hell, the first link that comes up is a story called “List of Great Scientists in Astronomy,” and there is no trace of Eisinga anywhere in the article. 

Eise Eisinga

And yet, this man moved from a wool-working background with some prodigious mathematical gifts to fashion a “clockwork mechanism constructed from thousands of handmade parts,” many of which were similar to the tools he used for his day job. From the accompanying article, written by Christopher Stocks:

Eisinga’s planetarium still works perfectly today. It shows all the relative positions of the planets as they move around the sun, as well as the phases of the moon, the days of the week, and a map of the stars as they appear above Franeker.

A feast for the eyes, this shot

The entire mechanism is driven by a single pendulum clock, which is connected to various oak disks and elliptical gears that allow the model to mimic the planets’ irregular orbit around the sun.

Wooden you like to know how this works?

Alastair had a good bit of leeway to craft the images as he saw fit, a welcome development that eased the burdensome nature of the shoot. People who lived 250-plus years ago were apparently smaller than modern-day humans, so this house was something of a tight squeeze. The Dane also had to negotiate numerous reflections that sprung up throughout the day, which added a post-production element to the project.

The room is fairly small, so it was a matter of trying to capture the whole scene as well as select details that show just how complicated the machine is.

Thanks Lindsay!

The room is painted in a very glossy paint, and there are two large windows with no blinds, so dealing with the reflections was a bit of an issue. I knew about this in advance and had some thick black fabric to cover the windows, and then indirectly lit with some very low LED lights, and used a very long exposure. It was impossible to remove all reflections, so I moved the lights around and composited the final shots in Photoshop so you don’t see the distracting reflections.

As if building a working planetarium in his house wasn’t badass enough, Eisinga might have also created this astronomical masterpiece as a mic-drop rebuke of some asinine, apocalyptic fearmongering — the kind of nonsensical rhetoric that was baked into the religious garble of the day. I’ll let Christopher’s recounting and Alastair’s reaction take you through it.

It seems likely that the original impetus came in response to an article in the local newspaper reporting on a forthcoming conjunction of the planets, which astronomers had predicted for May 8, 1774. A local clergyman, Eelco Alta, alleged that the event would result in the earth being pushed from its orbit and burned by the sun. Unsurprisingly, this prediction caused much consternation, and it’s thought that Eisinga decided to demonstrate the fatuity of Alta’s claims in a practical, public way.  

Don't make me tear up

I love that side of it, and I love the fact that he had enough get-up and go to actually do something about it. That takes a special person.

Though it took Eisinga seven years to finish his magnum opus (by which point everyone realized the world wasn’t going to end), the planetarium is proof positive that we as humans can achieve great things when we combine a thirst for knowledge with an innovative bent. While his family probably wasn’t happy that Eisinga hijacked the house to put everything together, their name lives on as a reminder of how the human spirit can manifest itself for future generations to admire.  

I can’t even begin to imagine what his family thought while he was building this thing — the living room was also the bedroom, as you can see in the photos.

Right in the living room

But it worked, and it is still accurate. I love that kind of obsessive craziness. It’s a bit of a cliché that the most important technological steps we take as humans happen because of people that are at least half-crazy, but I think it's true.

Credits:

Director of Photography: Emmanuelle Peri, Bookmark Content

Article Writer: Christopher Stocks

Check out more of Alastair's work at alastairphilipwiper.com.

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