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Earthly Delight

The world's largest kugel finds its home at last.

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He convinced her to arrive with him an hour early today, Jan. 6, so he wouldn't miss the museum's 50-ton feat. But it's 11 a.m., and after three hours of activity, the Grand Kugel has yet to be revealed. Museum Director Walter Witschey, dressed in his customary suit and bow tie, seems not to feel the cold that has other onlookers shivering. He's been waiting 10 years for this moment.

In 1993, Witschey attended the annual conference of the Association of Science-Technology Centers in Columbus, Ohio. While there, he saw an outdoor exhibit that enthralled him — a smooth granite ball 3 feet across that spun slowly in its water-filled base. The pressure from a jet of water under the sphere, which is called a kugel (the German word for ball), buoyed it just enough so it could be turned with the touch of a finger. "It fascinated people, being able to move a huge stone," he says.

When Witschey returned, he proposed the museum acquire its own kugels, which would be scale models of the earth and moon. A few back-of-envelope sketches suggested a possible scale of 1 foot per 1,000 miles, if the earth and moon were placed 250 feet apart. The moon kugel would be about 2 feet in diameter; the earth 9.

But the world's best-known maker of the granite balls, Kusser Granitwerke in Aicha, Germany, told Witschey that crafting the earth was out of the question. Nine feet was too large for their machinery to handle, they said.

One year later, however, the factory called back to tell the museum director they could alter their machinery to accommodate a sphere of that size. Witschey was jubilant. It took two years to raise $1.25-million from private donors. Then the project was on.

The 80-ton cube of granite that would be the earth was quarried in South Africa and shipped to Germany. The block was carved into a rough ball, then, over three months, it was ground into a perfect sphere and polished to a mirror finish — "I can tie my bow tie in the reflection," Witschey says. Next, the kugel was etched with the outlines of the continents and weighted with lead so that on its own, it would rotate at the same 23.4-degree angle as the orbiting earth.

Strapped and bolted to a steel frame, encased in a wooden crate bigger than a garden shed, the earth sailed west to Norfolk, and from there was trucked to Richmond. The moon arrived the day after Christmas and now sits in front of the Ethyl IMAXDome. Bundled in an opaque plastic sheet, it looks forlorn now that all the attention is on its 29-ton sibling.

"As far as we know, this is the largest such thing on the planet," Witschey says. "It is," affirms Thomas "Red" Hogan. For 10 years, Hogan has been the exclusive North American distributor of kugels. Recently, he says, he received an inquiry about obtaining a 9-foot-10-inch kugel for the proposed Twin Towers memorial in New York City, but the Granitwerke said it would need to build an entirely new plant to manufacture it. So the Grand Kugel in Richmond is indeed a Guinness Book candidate, Hogan says.

Moving it from the flatbed truck to a site in front of the museum is a monumental feat. Children about to enter the museum pull back on their mothers' hands, gaping at the big machines. Museum employees peer out of the windows. Board members stand in the lobby. All are intent on the orange-suited workers, the twin red cranes, the foremen's mysterious hand signals. Hogan, identifiable from afar by the white ponytail flowing from his white hard hat, orchestrates it all.

At 1:13 p.m. the crate comes off, revealing the shrouded kugel and base. At 2:05, with mighty rumbles and a hiss of hydraulics, the two cranes begin lifting slowly, until at last, the Grand Kugel swings free. Gently, the cranes lower it to the ground.

"Oh, that's remarkable," says Mary Jane Brummer, standing close to her husband outside. It has been six hours since they arrived. It will be the rest of the day and night until the kugel is set firmly in its permanent home. But, at last, Carl Brummer has seen the earth move. "We can go home," he says.

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