Opened in 1993, the Planetarium was established by Director Paul England who has been a lifelong astronomer, taking a London University four year extra-mural course in the subject at Morley College in 1968 after completing a degree in engineering. A career at IBM followed for Paul, but his first love was always astronomy, and he helped his tutor Leslie White keep a planetarium in the dome of The John Crib Church in Lambeth.
Paul moved this mechanical planetarium to the Island in the early 90s, and whilst it is still in pride of place in the exhibition the current planetarium is now digital thanks to the fantastic computer wizardry of Andrew Rowe who was hooked by the Planetarium when he first visited in 1998 (at the age of 13) and returned after completing an HND course in Software Engineering at Portsmouth University.
“My tutor Leslie White kept it in a nearby church spire for his first year students,” explained Paul of the original planetarium. “I kept it set up and looked after it as I was working in the City. In 1985 Leslie and I were talking and he said he couldn’t get up the stairs (120 steps to the top of the dome) and that’s how I came to own it.
Paul retired in 1991 and had a home on the Island and with the help of the Isle of Wight Council took three arches at Fort Victoria and built a planetarium. It was built by October 1992 and opened in May 1993.
In 1992 the first Astronomy classes we give for students of the Isle of Wight College by Paul England.
In 1993 the Planetarium opened for live shows to the public.
In 1994 started running recorded shows and started running stargazing in the summer evenings.
In 1996, when Mac Macpherson of Vectis Astro built the electronic control box this allowed control of planetarium projector from the back of the dome, i.e. changed from low voltage to 240v. Paul did the installation in the dome.
In 1996 held the British Association of Planetaria (BAP) annual meeting. The meeting was attended by about 15 members compared to the meeting last year in Leicester which was attended by 80 plus, which shows how the interest in astronomy has grown.
In 1997 the Morley College Astronomy Group held their re-union at the Planetarium.
In 1998 started with Welcome to the Universe show using multi-pan projectors.In 1998 started with the mobile planetarium.In 1999 our first visit to a school in London with the mobile planetarium.
In 1999 there was a total Eclipse which approximately 300 people viewed from the planetarium at Fort Victoria.In 2000 Paul became the president of the British Association of Planetaria (BAP).
Between 2000 and 2006 the number of mobile visits to schools were increasing and the shows - Star is Born, Remake of Welcome to Universe were made. The display cabinets in the exhibition area were built.
In 2005/6 the Hooke exhibition was built, this is a centrepiece and large corner exhibition, in the exhibition area on Robert Hooke and his life and the Robert Hooke Society meets here too. The society was revived by Alison Smith daughter of the late founder Trevor Clarke who died in 2004 and Paul England, Director of the Planetarium.
Hooke had the idea that you could measure the distance to the stars using a telescope vertically aligned in the Great Fire Monument in London, of which he and Sir Christopher Wren were the designers; though it took another 200 years to get the technology right. There is a trail around Freshwater in his memory that Arnold Taylor and Charlie Davidson conceived back in 2008. In 2012 twelve memorial plaques were placed around the trail by Freshwater Parish Council funded by a Heritage Lottery Grant.
The Hooke exhibition was opened by Pro Alan Chapman in 2007.
The central Hooke exhibition display rises by an electric hoist so that a large Tellurium can be positioned on the table that shows the earth and the sun, explaining the seasons and the changing length of day for visiting schools.
In 2006 Paul and Andrew started looking into the idea of an in-house digital system.
In 2009 In the season there is a Solar Trail in the park outside. The sun, as a sundial is just outside the planetarium and as you walk through the park the planet displays are on the way to the headland – just under a kilometre and it takes about 40 minutes.”
In 2009 work was started on the mirror dome. “About three and a half years ago Andrew said to me, “You really must come into the digital age, which is what you see around you,” explained Paul. “We have four shows and each one lasts about 20 to 25 minutes. It’s great for kids: lots of colour and things happening. Its immersive now and all the shows we have here have been re-written into digital format by Andrew. We have ‘Welcome to the Universe’, ‘More than Meets The Eye’, ‘Journey to the Stars’.
We are the smallest fixed dome planetarium in the UK with regular public shows. There is a planetarium in Southend library which is smaller, but it is not really comparable to the Island Planetarium, as they do not run regular shows for the public.
In 2010 was the first complete season using the full mirror dome system.
In 2012 started to run full mirror dome immersive shows (CELL! CELL! CELL! & WE ARE ALIENS).