Harold That German Robot & Johnny TomorrowMonday, August 05, 2013
In October of 1968 a German robot that went by the name of “Zeiss Jena Universal Planetarium Star Projector” was born in the top of the brand new dome theatre in a building that also housed the Vancouver Centennial Museum located in Vanier Park, Kitsilano, Vancouver, BC. In October of 1977, just over the bridge on Burrard Street in St. Paul’s Hospital, I was brought into this world. The similarities of our beginnings only mirror the relationship that over the years that has seen me grow closer and closer to the robot that would affectionately become known as “Harold”.
Harold was given his name after a technician thought his tall, skinny, and odd appearance had a resemblance to “Weird Harold”, one of the characters from the Fat Albert cartoon. That description could very well have described me when I walked into the planetarium for the first time on a field trip in 1985. I don’t remember much of Harold at the time, but what I do remember was the journey through space that he took us on that day. It sparked a curiosity about the universe that would build each time I watched reruns of Star Trek, or pulled out my Star Wars toys to recreate dramas on distant alien worlds. The second time I saw Harold was a moment of déjà-vu when I sat down in almost the exact same seat to watch a Pink Floyd laser show ten years later in 1995. The memories came flooding back of this special theatre of time and space, and this robot that would take me on a journey, albeit a different one with a psychedelic soundtrack. When I got the opportunity to start working at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre I realized that when I walked into the theatre that it literally was the third time I would come into Harold’s presence, and my memories of him now became momentous moments of foreshadowing that planted the seeds that eventually brought us together. The planetarium would quickly become my second home, and Harold soon became not only a co-worker, but a friend. Every time I stepped into the theatre my brain would come alive with thoughts of the past and future, an effect that would happen every night that I would look up at the real stars and now has set me firmly on a journey of astronomy education.
Over the course of July 2013, Harold was basically on a retirement tour as the theatre underwent renovations to make way for the new digital-dome that would take us into the millennium with a system comparably with some of the other major planetarium of the world. We live in an incredibly exciting time in which we’re not only landing rovers on Mars, exploring the rings of Saturn, finding planets in other Solar Systems, but learning about the true nature of our place in the Universe. This new system will allow us to not only see the stars from what they would look like from Vanier Park, but leave our planet to visit other worlds like the Moon, Saturn, or the Andromeda Galaxy. Harold will not be leaving the building, but will get a well deserved vacation. He’s been doing shows pretty much every day since 1968, and he’ll come out occasionally for special events perhaps, but he’ll no longer be relied upon to guide us through the universe.
Like any friend, saying goodbye is never easy, especially for one like Harold. At times he was my therapist, my teacher, and my dream maker. You never really can say goodbye to someone like that, because he has integrated himself into my DNA. I am by far not the only that has impacted Harold, many people have come through the building to work with him like David A. Rodger who was the planetariums first director, Craig McCaw who would be the architect of the Pink Floyd laser shows, and John Tanner who presented the first planetarium show in 1968, as well as the last official Harold show in 2013. I’ve only spent a short time with Harold, relatively, but as was proven when I first met him in 1985, all it took was one meeting for me to be hooked on the Universe. When a star explodes in a supernova, the expelled materials form a nebula where new stars take their form. It’s this grand cosmic recycling that has shaped our Universe and proves that everything on this planet was once forged in an exploding star. Harold’s DNA then will forever be in the planetarium, and my job now, is to pass on what he’s taught me, to a new generation of stargazers with a brand new system that is sure to spark that love of space as it did me.
Michael John Unger
Michael Unger is an interpreter at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. He’s also the creator of “The Johnny Tomorrow Chronicles”, a one-man astronomy story-telling show which will be presented at the Carousel Theatre as part of the Vancouver Fringe Festival in September 2013.