[Cover of Sullivan's book 2009, Cosmic Noise]
Sullivan's Cosmic Noise, Cambridge University Press, 2009


NATIONAL RADIO ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY ARCHIVES

Papers of Woodruff T. Sullivan III: Tapes Series

Interview with Harald T. Friis
By telephone from the University of Washington to Friis' home in Palo Alto, California
February 3, 1976
Interview Time: 15 minutes
Transcribed for Sullivan by Bonnie Jacobs

Note: The interview listed below was either transcribed as part of Sullivan's research for his book, Cosmic Noise: A History of Early Radio Astronomy (Cambridge University Press, 2009) or was transcribed in the NRAO Archives by Sierra Smith in 2012-2013. The transcription may have been read and edited for clarity by Sullivan, and may have also been read and edited by the interviewee. Any notes added in the reading/editing process by Sullivan, the interviewee, or others who read the transcript have been included in brackets. If the interview was transcribed for Sullivan, the original typescript of the interview is available in the NRAO Archives. Sullivan's notes about each interview are available on the individual interviewee's Web page. During processing, full names of institutions and people were added in brackets and if especially long the interview was split into parts reflecting the sides of the original audio cassette tapes. We are grateful for the 2011 Herbert C. Pollock Award from Dudley Observatory which funded digitization of the original cassette tapes, and for a 2012 grant from American Institute of Physics, Center for the History of Physics, which funded the work of posting these interviews to the Web.

Please bear in mind that: 1) This material is a transcript of the spoken word rather than a literary product; 2) An interview must be read with the awareness that different people's memories about an event will often differ, and that memories can change with time for many reasons including subsequent experiences, interactions with others, and one's feelings about an event.

Sullivan

Harald Friis at his home in Palo Alto, California from the U.W. [University of Washington] and this is 3 February 1976. The first thing I was wondering if any plans exist now for the Bruce antenna that Jansky used. Do you know if there are still any drawings, or something?

Friis

I don't think so. That was a very different one, you know.

Sullivan

Right. Do you happen to remember how many wavelengths that the center of the antenna was above the ground?

Friis

I've forgotten now. It's not very high. Itís very close to the ground.

Sullivan

I tried to estimate it from a photograph, but I'm trying to accurately calculate what the antenna pattern was. That's why I'd like to know.

Friis

I've forgotten now. Was it about half a wavelength?

Sullivan

It's about a third of the wavelength. But I was wondering if you happen to know exactly what it was.

Friis

No.

Sullivan

I suppose it was whatever was convenient?

Friis

Right.

Sullivan

For the two-by fours, or whatever.

Friis

Right.

Sullivan

Do you know if there are any photos or log books that exist of this period that either you have or Bell Labs has, or anything like this?

Friis

Anymore?

Sullivan

Any other photographs or log books.

Friis

No, I don't have anything.

Sullivan

Do you know of anyone that does?

Friis

I only have what they put in the Bell Labs "Visionary."

Sullivan

In what?

Friis

In that big book Bell Labs puts out.

Sullivan

Yes. "Visionary?"

Friis

Yes.

Sullivan

When was that put out? Iím not sure Iíve seen that.

Friis

That was just a year ago.

Sullivan

And it had an article about Jansky?

Friis

Yes, a good article about Jansky.

Sullivan

Do you know what happened to the original log books and so forth that he had?

Friis

No, I don't know what happened to them.

Sullivan

There was no effort made to preserve them as far as you know?

Friis

Maybe the Bell Labs knows where they are.

Sullivan

The same with the original records I guess?

Friis

Right.

Sullivan

Well, let me ask some specific questions then about your article. You say here- you imply that Jansky was quite famous in his own time with this New York Times article and so forth. I was wondering, was that true, that there was an awful lot of publicity for it and so forth?

Friis

No. What was the first question?

Sullivan

I was wondering how famous Jansky was in his own time. Was Jansky widely recognized by radio engineers as having made a...

Friis

Not very much. Astronomers didn't care about it.

Sullivan

And why do you think that was?

Friis

I don't know, I don't understand it.

Sullivan

And what about the radio engineers?

Friis

That was about the same.

Sullivan

Why do you think it was that they got turned on to radio astronomy after World War II but not in the 1930s?

Friis

I don't know. You know that little paper I wrote- John Schelling.

Sullivan

Thatís right. You mentioned him.

Friis

John Schelling. He knew all about Jansky too.

Sullivan

Do you know where he is now?

Friis

He's down at Deal. He still lives down there.

Sullivan

Let me see where you mention him. Where exactly is Deal?

Friis

A little south of Red Bank.

Sullivan

I see. Has he retired living there?

Friis

He lives there now, yes. He made a little comment in my little article about Karl Jansky. He said, "I pressed him too much."

Sullivan

Why did he think that?

Friis

Because I didn't think you could press Jansky enough. You know that whole business was funny.

Sullivan

In what way?

Friis

When Jansky got a job from me...

Sullivan

Right.

Friis

He had troubles, you know, with his kidneys. And he was told he should get a very easy job.

Sullivan

That's right, you mentioned that in the article.

Friis

He came down to me at Holmdel. I thought the right job for him is just to measure in what direction static comes in. So I gave him my turntable and the antenna. And then I had a receiving set- it was the best receiving set in existence then. Because that receiving set could distinguish between static noises and a steady noises.

Sullivan

What do you think was its noise figure?

Friis

Oh, I think that was pretty darned good, maybe 4-5 dB. I'm sure that was a good one.

Sullivan

Yes, very good.

Friis

Jansky, you know, was a perfect man, what do you call it, technical help. And he really took care of his job and took all the data all the time. And then he noticed after a year that things used to come at the same time. And then Schelling had a very good man there that knew about astronomy.

Sullivan

That was Skellett?

Friis

Skellett, yes.

Sullivan

Do you know where Skellett is now?

Friis

I don't know exactly where he is. Schelling could tell you. Because Skellett was an astronomer, you know.

Sullivan

Who did he work for then?

Friis

He worked for Schelling.

Sullivan

For which company, Bell Labs?

Friis

Yes, at Bell Labs.

Sullivan

And so Skellett was the one that taught Jansky the astronomy essentially?

Friis

He was the one that told him that it came from the center of the Milky Way. So Skellett was really a very important man.

Sullivan

Was Skellett the one that recognized the fact that it was coming four minutes earlier every day implied that it was...

Friis

Well, I thought the records showed that, you know.

Sullivan

Right, but was it Skellett the one that recognized why that was so important?

Friis

Well, I can't tell that.

Sullivan

You're not sure.

Friis

I was very busy with another job, the big antenna, and that's why I didnít take more time with it. You know, Jansky had a very interesting brother.

Sullivan

I talked to his brother- he died a year ago.

Friis

He was a wonderful fellow.

Sullivan

Yes, I was glad I got to talk to him

Friis

He was the one that got Jansky to use his noise from the stars to open the big meeting of the IRE [Institute of Radio Engineers].

Sullivan

Which meeting was that?

Friis

The meeting in New York.

Sullivan

Oh, yes, of the IRE.

Friis

IRE, yes.

Sullivan

What was your relationship to Jansky? Were you his direct supervisor?

Friis

Yes, I was his direct supervisor.

Sullivan

And when he came upon this cosmic noise or whatever you want to call it, star static, did you allow him to just continue working with it?

Friis

Oh, yes. I continued working him on this and after some months another job came up that the Navy wanted done. So I put him on that job.

Sullivan

And this is in 1933?

Friis

Oh, later.

Sullivan

Before we get to later, I have a couple other questions here. You mentioned that in 1934 Jansky attempted to get cosmic noise at 4 meters wavelength.

Friis

Did he?

Sullivan

And you say that he was not successful, and I was wondering was this ever published in an internal report or anything like that?

Friis

I don't know, I'd forgotten about that.

Sullivan

Because it would be very interesting to know what the upper limit was, that he found.

Friis

Yes.

Sullivan

But you can't remember?

Friis

No.

Sullivan

Now in this article you talk about that in 1938 Karl dropped the study of star noise and later on that you were criticized by people that thought you had stopped him.

Friis

Right.

Sullivan

I just want to know if you still feel the same way, that it was mainly because there was no encouragement from the outside...

Friis

No, no. I think it was just a matter of things to do, you know. I was still surprised that the astronomers didnít seem to be more interested.

Sullivan

I've heard from various sources, I've never been able to confirm it, that Jansky had a proposal for a 100 foot antenna of some kind.

Friis

No. That was all a fiction, you know. I remember still, there was a man Pfeiffer that wrote about Jansky.

Sullivan

Right, he wrote a popular book.

Friis

And he came to Holmdel to see Jansky. So he met Jansky [Sulliavn: but Pfeiffer worked on his book ~4-5 years after Janskyís death] and all my other young people. I still remember that.

Sullivan

Are you saying that he's the one that made up the story about the 100 foot antenna?

Friis

He's the one who made it up. He talked about when Jansky was there with all my people, [John E.] Pfeiffer asked me, "Was he a scientist?" I said, "No, Jansky was just a very good electrical engineer and he was just as good as my other people." There were eight other people there. And that's what Pfeiffer couldn't understand. Right away, he thought it was crazy because he was sure Jansky should have been a big scientist, right away.

Sullivan

Then as far as you know Jansky never made any attempt to extend the work beyond what he did?

Friis

That's right. Then that other fellow, you know, another man started in.

Sullivan

You mean [Grote] Reber?

Friis

Yes, Reber.

Sullivan

Oh, yes, I've talked to Reber quite a bit.

Friis

Jansky liked him very much.

Sullivan

What was Jansky's reaction to Reber's work?

Friis

He liked it very much. They got together. And they liked each other very much.

Sullivan

Did you ever meet Reber or visit his antenna?

Friis

No. Jansky did, I know.

Sullivan

And still Jansky didn't care about having his own 30 foot antenna like Reber's, or anything?

Friis

No.

Sullivan

So he more or less apparently had decided that that was enough and he was going to move on to low-noise receivers and things like this?

Friis

Right.

Sullivan

Now during World War II you mentioned that, of course, there was pressing radar work to be done but I was wondering why when you had much higher sensitivity and larger antennas and so forth and higher frequencies, why you didn't try and sneak in a project, look at the Sun or something like that. Something like [George] Southworth did.

Friis

Oh, I don't know, I'm not sure.v

Sullivan

It just didn't occur to you?

Friis

Well, there were so many things. And I remember during World War II, the Navy particularly wanted to find the direction from which a signal from a submarine comes. Jansky was working on it.

Sullivan

On direction finding from submarine radar?

Friis

That's right.

Sullivan

But there were no attempts to detect the sun or anything that were unsuccessful that may not have been published anywhere.v

Friis

No, I don't think so.

Sullivan

Ok. Can you tell me a little bit about what Jansky's reaction was to radio astronomy after the War? Was he delighted to see it expanding like it was?

Friis

Oh, yes. He thought it was wonderful.

Sullivan

But still he was content to stay at Bell Labs and not do radio astronomy?

Friis

I think so, yes.

Sullivan

But I guess he was growing quite ill by this time.

Friis

Oh, yes, he was.

Sullivan

Now you mentioned in the article that he wrote a report on a meeting he went to at NRL [Naval Research Laboratory] on radio astronomy in 1948.

Friis

í48?

Sullivan

Right.

Friis

I've forgotten it.

Sullivan

And you say that he wrote a detailed report on this conference. I was wondering if it's possible for you to find a copy of this? Do you have any archives?

Friis

No, I don't think I can. I'd forgotten about that.

Sullivan

Do you have any archives of your own that you could possibly look through?

Friis

No.

Sullivan

Have you deposited them anywhere?

Friis

No. Did you say 1948?

Sullivan

Yes.

Friis

I'd, forgotten about that '48 meeting.

Sullivan

You mention it here in your article. I've never heard of it myself. It must have been an informal conference. But it would be very interesting to see what Jansky's opinions were about radio astronomy in 1948. Do you have any idea where I might get a copy...

Friis

Well, you can try Schelling, he might be able to do something more.

Sullivan

Ok.

Friis

Schelling's address...

Sullivan

That's the end of the interview with Harald Friis over the phone between U.W. and Palo Alto, California on 3 February í76 and thatís the end of this side of the tape also.


Modified on Wednesday, 17-Dec-2014 16:28:16 EST by Ellen Bouton, Archivist (Questions or feedback)