The planetarium as a synthetic training device, one of the most enjoyable and effective ever devised, quickly became an excellent way for millions of people to learn things they believed were beyond their learning abilities, for older generations to share their knowledge with younger ones and for experts to come into contact with the layman. That is because the planetarium has an amazing capacity that enables both scientists and those with just a basic education to enjoy exactly the same show and share the sensation of the overall general development in events and the relation between cause and effect.
The late Eugene Eugenides did not define the directions that the Foundation should follow. He left that to the discretion of the Foundation directors. As such, his late sister, Marianthi Simou, the first governor and the soul of the foundation, decided to add a planetarium to the Foundation building complex, following the recommendations of her advisers, Stavros Plakidis, professor and chairman of the Department of Astronomy at the University of Athens, and Dimitris Kasapis, lecturer at the National Technical University of Athens.
The amount spent to this end was colossal for that time, and the extremely costly main planetarium projector was a donation by Nikolaos Vernikos-Eugenides. That very first projector, a Mark IV made by the Carl Zeiss Company, was 6 metres high, weighed 2.5 tonnes and consisted of 29,000 parts. Its two round ends, as well as its midsection, were covered by 150 projection systems that enabled it to project onto the hemispherical dome, among other things, 8,900 stars with a magnitude of up to 6.5, the movement of the Sun, the Moon and the five brightest planets, the image of the visible sky, as it appears from every point on Earth, and the seasonal changes.
Today, this marvellous instrument adorns the lobby on the first floor, placed as an exhibit in the exact same spot that it occupied throughout its operation from 1966 to 1999. Thus, the new Eugenides Foundation building on Syngrou Avenue was opened on 7 June 1966 and the first planetarium in Greece and only one in Southeastern Europe began operating.
In this way, the wishes and vision of national benefactor Eugene Eugenides were more completely realised: "to contribute to the education of Greek youth in the fields of science and technology". In its honour, the Greek Postal Service issued a special stamp marked with a first day of its release. With the encouragement of Stavros Plakidis, the late Marianthi Simou hired Dimitrios Kotsakis to serve as the Planetarium's first director in 1962. Kotsakis, who was at the time an assistant professor at the University of Athens and a professor of Mathematics at the Naval Academy was elected professor and chairman of the Astronomy Department at the University of Athens in 1965. He remained director of the Eugenides Planetarium until 1973, while Stavros Plakidis served as the Foundation's astronomy adviser.
During this period of the Planetarium's operation, the contribution of astronomer Konstantinos Hasapis was also very important. He was a powerful speaker and literally captivated large audiences during his weekly lectures on astronomy in the Foundation Amphitheatre, particularly during the last two years of his life (1970-1972). In the beginning, the Planetarium found support for its activities among the numerous eminent associates abroad. Particularly notable were the contributions of Zdenek Kopal, professor of Astronomy at the University of Manchester in England, Henry King, director of the London Planetarium, and F. Pohl, director of the Nuremberg Planetarium.
During this period, great emphasis was placed on shows for secondary school graduating students enrolled in a cosmography course. During a period of one year, students had the opportunity to watch six different shows especially adapted for them. They also had the opportunity to attend special educational lectures, initially by astronomer Petros Rovithis (1967-1971) and later by astronomer Maro Papathanasiou (1971-1982), who were also in charge of making daily observations of the Sun using the Foundation's telescope in cooperation with similar centres in Sweden and Switzerland. Michalis Moutsoulas, professor of telescopy at the University of Athens, also offered invaluable services as an adviser to the Foundation and a friend of the Planetarium until his untimely death in 1995.
The Planetarium, a true jewel and pole of attraction for students and the general public, from the start was considered to be a vital programme on a national level with its main objective being the qualitative improvement of scientific education of the Greek people. It is a scientific centre with an essential mission and objective goal of popularising and disseminating information about the achievements of science and technology. Indeed, since its initial steps, it grew rapidly and evolved into a centre for education, entertainment and assistance for all the sciences. This was due to the fact that the Planetarium used all the creative and technical potential of audiovisual media in appropriate combinations so as to be able to relate the history of science in the most impressive, spectacular and entertaining way.
At the beginning of 1970, Dionysis Simopoulos, while still in the USA, embarked on a close collaboration with the late Georgis Athanasiadis, then editor of the newspaper Vradyni, publishing extensive articles on the results of the manned Apollo missions. Those articles were the reason that in the summer of 1972, the Greek Astronomical Society invited him to Athens to conduct a lecture and he was given the opportunity to meet with the late Marianthi Simou. That meeting proved decisive, as two months later, he was named Dimitrios Kotsakis' successor as director of the Eugenides Planetarium, though he assumed his responsibilities on 6 April 1973. Influenced by his five-year experience as curator and later as director of the Zeiss planetarium at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum (one of the 10 largest planetariums in the USA), he introduced innovations (in music, artistic and directorial enhancement of scientific lectures at the Planetarium) that resulted in an impressive increase in audience numbers.
In 1978, visitors to the Planetarium had quadrupled to 116,000 a year, a number that was insurmountable, given the number of available seats at the Planetarium and the shows it offered. This spectacular increase in activity at the Planetarium was largely due to the impressive upgrade of the audiovisual equipment following the installation of dozens of auxiliary projectors which helped make the performances all the more stunning. In this way, dozens of new shows were created and helped make the Planetarium accessible to audiences of all ages and levels of education. During the 1970s, however, a reduction in the establishment of new planetariums was noted worldwide due to lessened interest in the Apollo programme lunar missions. Nevertheless, that did not impede the development of technology associated with planetariums. Many auditoriums began to use seating that was oriented in a particular direction and not necessary toward the centre of the room. That helped the public to focus even more on the substance of the topic being described during the presentation. In 1976, a system of multiple projectors was devised that could project a single image (e.g. the interior of an astronomical observatory) that covered the entire dome.
Through various other experimentations with regard to the audience's senses related to the dome, audience members were able to feel that they were part of the spectacle, "floating" through Space, and not just mere observers of a show. The Omnimax system, a dome film projection system, first appeared in San Diego in 1973 in the creation of the first space theatre in the world with an angled dome. A year later, that experience was influential enough to sow the first seeds for today's design of the Eugenides Foundation's New Digital Planetarium.
Automated control of projections was still a rarity, though in 1976 the first completely automated planetarium in the world made its appearance: the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. An automatically projected planetarium show could be activated by the push of a button. The sound was also perceptively improved, first through double stereophonic sound and then with four-channel surround sound. These elements created a new generation of planetariums which were also used to present theatre plays, concerts and special laser shows. As a result, planetarium revenues were increased while attracting a public that might not otherwise have ever visited a planetarium. The fact that another type of audience enjoyed what it saw led this audience (or at least a significant portion of it) to come back to the planetarium to watch shows with an astronomical content.
The Eugenides Foundation followed along these international developments, mostly thanks to the particular interest shown from the outset by Marianthi Simou, who had the necessary capital to upgrade its equipment. During that period, the stationary silhouette of Athens was replaced by a system of projector slides able to project onto the dome panoramic images from all over the world, as well as from the surfaces of other planets and satellites, as scientists then estimated these would appear to future visitors. And so, while in the early 1970s, the Eugenides Foundation Planetarium was using the main Zeiss Global Projector and only one auxiliary projector of 5-10 slides per show, by the end of the decade, it had more than 75 projectors with 80 slides each and at least 200 special effects projectors that could replicate hundreds of different astronomical phenomena that the Zeiss projector could not accommodate.
The effort to upgrade the Planetarium's audiovisual equipment was bolstered by three technicians who were trained abroad for this purpose: the late Yiannis Galatas, from the first day of its installation and operation, and later Dimitris Hatzakis and Giorgos Tsesmelis.
During that same period, the contribution of Maurice Altsech, a true master of photography, was significant in the aesthetic and artistic appearance of the shows. Finally, it would be a major omission not to emphasise the great contribution of Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation (ERT) announcer Giorgos Athanasopoulos, who from 1966 to 1990 served as the only narrator and the "voice of the Planetarium" for more than 250 shows. Despite its upgrade, however, the activities of the Planetarium until the end of the 1970s stopped just a few metres from its doors.
The public that visited its facilities was satisfied on the one hand, but the services offered were limited to the projections, regardless of how impressive they had become in the meantime. This realisation gradually led to a change in the philosophy guiding its activities, and so the Planetarium ceased to be limited to just its physical facility, but expanded its activities beyond it with informative articles and interviews in the daily and periodical press, with popularised science programmes on television and with educational lectures throughout the country. It was then decided that it should be turned into an informative, popularised educational centre, participating - through far-reaching planning - in activities as part of social development, as only through broad cooperation with society could its function truly achieve its goal and grow. Thus, the foundation for its intensive outreach was laid in the decade that followed.
During that same period, the Eugenides Foundation Planetarium, in cooperation with the Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland and the Hamburg Planetarium, in 1978 formed the European/Mediterranean Planetarium Association with the aim of strengthening relations among the larger European planetariums, while 16 years later, with the European South Observatory, they became the focus of efforts to create a second pan-European scientific organisation known as the European Association for Astronomy Education.
Forty years after the creation of the first planetarium in Greece by the Eugenides Foundation in 1966, its state-of-the-art successor, the New Digital Planetarium, opened to the public in November 2003. If the old Planetarium was one of its kind in Greece and one of the most modern planetariums of its time, the New Planetarium, with a dome diameter of 25 metres and a total surface area of 950 m2 (as much as 2.5 basketball courts), is one of the largest and best-equipped digital planetariums in the world. The creation of the New Digital Planetarium, with a 280-seat capacity, marks the beginning of the implementation of a vision originally conceived of by the late Nikos Vernikos-Eugenides.
In the fall of 1996, then Foundation President Nikolaos Vernikos-Eugenides, following the example of the great national benefactors Eugene Eugenides and Marianthi Simou and realising that the upcoming century demanded the modernisation and upgrade of the services the Eugenides Foundation had offered Greece until then, decided to donate a particularly sizeable amount to expand the facilities and activities of the Foundation.
For the four years preceding his unexpected death in November 2000, Vernikos-Eugenides participated decisively in the design of plans for the expansion of the facilities and activities of the Foundation. His vision is being carried on today by his successor and new Foundation President Leonidas Dimitriadis-Eugenides.
The New Digital Planetarium has provided for access to disabled persons, including specially designed outdoor and indoor entrances with ramps, lifts to all floors, accessible WCs, specially designed seats in the projection auditorium and parking spaces for the exclusive use of disabled persons.