[Jansky, 1965]
Jansky, 1965 (Photo courtesy of NRAO/AUI/NSF)



NATIONAL RADIO ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY ARCHIVES

Papers of Woodruff T. Sullivan III: Tapes Series

Interview with C. Moreau Jansky
At his home, Washington D.C.
December 29, 1973
Interview Time: 25 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 or 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.

Sullivan

This is talking with Karl Janskyís brother, Cyril Moreau Janksy.

Jansky

I beg your pardon. C. Moreau.

Sullivan

C. Moreau Jansky at his home in Washington on 29 December í73. Could you tell me first about helping Karl get hired at Bell Labs?

Jansky

I must give a little background with respect to my own experiences. It happens that in the years immediately preceding 1920, after I had graduated in physics from the University of Wisconsin, I went to New York to work at 463 West Street, which was the Laboratory of the Bell System which later became Bell Telephone Laboratories.

Sullivan

Was the name changed the same time as they moved out to...

Jansky

No, I think- Iím not sure whether it changed- I think it changed before they moved, but I cannot be sure of that. But it so happened then, and I think perhaps- although I donít particularly like to do this- perhaps I should. And this may be of interest in connection with what followed. In January 1, 1930- pardon me, 1920, I became a member of the faculty of the Department of Electrical Engineering of the University of Minnesota. At that time when I went to the University of Minnesota most of the electrical engineering courses were in power engineering. And it became my duty to try to build the courses in radio engineering, and, in conjunction with another professor, Professor Svenson, who handled telephone and telegraph work, to build in effect was the communication part of the Department of Electrical Engineering of the University of Minnesota. It is true that in those days, courses in power electrical engineering were required if you wished to take communication engineering either in radio or in telephone/telegraph work. It became necessary to take elective courses. For instance, all of my courses in radio engineering were taught in the senior year- I mean postgraduate years at the University of Minnesota.

Now prior to this time the Bell system was very tight with all of its work. They were very tight with respect to the experimental work going on in their laboratories. The result was that students in electrical engineering and physics knew very little about what was going on in the communication field.

Sullivan

By tight you mean not publishing it?

Jansky

Thatís right. And it was largely for patent reasons that this was true. This may seem a peculiar background for this, but I think youíll see its connection as we go on. I recall specifically about 1922, I think it was, that engineers from the Bell System, having decided they had to secure more men for research and development and work in the Bell System, were out trying to hire graduates from electrical engineering. Two of them, including a Mr. Parker, showed up at the University of Wisconsin and they were interviewing students who had graduated in my office. And I recall one man we had who was a superb student, but heíd never taken a course in anything above 60 cycles. So when Parker tried to hire him, he said, "Oh, Iím not interested in going into the communication field, you have no problems there." Well, Parker just sat back and gasped. Well, when he left, I admit I gave these two men a lecture, having been in the Bell System myself. I said, "If you want to get graduates of universities into the communication field, youíve got to give them some picture of what is going on in this field because graduates will not go into fields they know nothing about. And they know whatís going on in the power field." Now, I do not know to what extent my talk with Parker was responsible, but I think that maybe it had something to do with it, but their own experiences in trying to hire graduates of electrical engineering departments had as much as anything. But almost overnight the philosophy of the Bell System changed. First they held some conferences of one to two weeks duration in New York at the Laboratories, and invited those of us who were professors and teachers down at their expense to see what was going on.

Sullivan

Amazing.

Jansky

Then they also to each of the universities, and I do not know how many, but I know that we at the University of Minnesota received several thousand dollars worth of communication measuring equipment, with instructions and information as to how to use it in our telephone and telegraph and radio laboratories. Now as a result of this I became quite well acquainted with a number of rather high-level people in Bell Telephone Laboratories- the names of some of whom I will mention a little later. Karl was not a well man as a student. He had, I believe, some small symptoms of whatís known as Brightís Disease. But he graduated in physics from the University of Wisconsin as I had. The time of his graduation is given in the papers which you have. And I knew that he had applied for a position on his graduation with Bell Telephone Laboratories. They were, frankly, a little hesitant to hire him because of his physical background. I think I may have mentioned some of this in some of the papers I have written. Well, I put up quite an argument with some of my friends, whose names I cannot name at the minute, in the Bell System that after all he was a good student, that he had good results. And Bell finally hired him. I donít think Bell ever regretted that they hired him. That is that phase of it.

Going on from there, because of my own background in the field of radio, I found myself involved particularly in the Hoover Conferences, which the Secretary of Commerce called in 1922, í23, Ď24 and í25, their purpose being to try to frame new legislation to regulate the rapidly developing field of radio broadcasting. This brought me east very frequently for these conferences, as did my consulting business which began to develop on the side at the University of Minnesota. And in connection with this I naturally at these conferences, which had many men from industry and government, had many conferences my friends in the Bell Laboratories, in the Radio Corporation of America, and the other radio companies. And, of course, I began to follow Karlís work then because I would visit with them, and one summer, Iíve forgotten the exact summer, while I was at the University of Minnesota- I either spent my summers working in the Bureau of Standards with Dr. Dellinger in the Bureau of Standards Radio Laboratory. But one summer I spent with the Radio Signal Laboratory of the Signal Corps of the United States Army, which is at Camp Vail, New Jersey, not too far from Redbank. So I saw something of Karlís work and what he was going there.

Sullivan

He was hired in 1928 or something like that?

Jansky

1928, yes.

Sullivan

This was just about the time that you cease being a professor...

Jansky

Thatís the time I ceased being a professor and started my own consulting business here. But then I used to see a good deal of Karl and his family- theyíre not too far from here. And I saw what he doing. But the man who really, to the best of my knowledge as much as anyone, understood the importance of what Karl was doing was our father, who because of his scientific background and because of what heíd heard of it in letters from Bell Telephone Laboratories from Karl, was the first man that I know if who first said, "This is one of the most important scientific discoveries in a long period of time."

Sullivan

This was after he had established that it was extraterrestrial?

Jansky

Thatís right. Now you have copies of all of Karlís original papers. It happened that as a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1933, the year before I was president, I presided at the URSI- Institute of Radio Engineers Conference at which Karl in Washington gave one of the very early disclosures of his reception of radio signals from a fixed point in space, which as you know later proved to be the center of the Milky Way.

Sullivan

That was his second paper I guess.

Jansky

I think it was his second paper.

Sullivan

The one where he established that it was a fixed point.

Jansky

Thatís right. That was the first- I believe it was the first one in which he spoke about this fixed point in space.

Sullivan

And what was the reception of this paper? Can you remember?

Jansky

Like so many scientific discoveries and this could be said about a large number of them, the importance of this discovery was not universally recognized. But this is not unusual. This is why I mentioned the fact that I think our father was one of the first to, at least one of the first that I ever saw emphasize it. I know that he is the man he got me particularly interested in it.

Karl was a very modest man. He was not aggressive. And there were those in the Bell System who couldnít see any immediate practical application of this thing, which is not difficult to understand. I would say only at about the time shortly before Karl died that people really began to be interested and recognized the importance of this basic discovery.

Sullivan

After the War, right, exactly.

Jansky

Thatís right.

Sullivan

But let me ask, before we get on, about the session at which you were present when he gave this paper. Can you remember at all the reaction? I mean did everyone believe what he was saying first of all?

Jansky

Oh, I think everyone believed it, but I donít recall that anyone particularly was terrible impressed as to its importance.

Sullivan

Right. It was just another paper then?

Jansky

Just another paper at the time. That is true. But this is not unusual with respect to scientific discoveries.

Sullivan

Right, thatís true.

Jansky

I canít pull any other examples out of my mind at the moment that I know I know many of them and you have to.

Sullivan

Thatís right.

Jansky

Is this what you want?

Sullivan

Yes, exactly. Now, you were saying that he was not an aggressive sort...

Jansky

No, he was not. I do know that his wife Alice thought that he ought to receive more recognition for it than he did. After all, there were articles in the New York Times about it and there was even a radio broadcast about it. Of course this was in the days before television, there was radio broadcast program about it. Today we would have first had a tape recorder of it, but then recordings were harder to make in those days.

Sullivan

I wonder if there still is one existing. I want to look for one, because they must have had one to make the recording- to make the broadcast.

Jansky

Well, letís see. I donít even know which radio station did it.

Sullivan

Well, I think it was CBS. I think Iíve seen that somewhere.

Jansky

CBS? Well!

Sullivan

And I think they actually gave a recording of the hiss you know, and the announcer said, "Listen to the hiss of the universe," or something.

Jansky

Iím sorry Frank Stanton is not Chairman of the Board, or President, of CBS because I used to- a very close friend of mine.

Sullivan

Well, we can talk about that afterwards.

Jansky

I would not be at all surprised if there was not a recording of it. Itís too bad.

Sullivan

Now what do you know of what Karl wanted to do? Did he want to follow up more than he was able to?

Jansky

Yes, he did want to follow up. But letís see, this would be in the Ď30s, wouldnít it?

Sullivan

Right. His last paper to do with this was in í35 in which he went back over his years' worth of data and he came up with a few more interesting things about the width of the galactic plane and so forth. But by that time already, he wasnít able to take new data apparently. He was just looking at his old data.

Jansky

Well, they put him on other work. You see, originally his work was- at that time, of course, as you know the background, Bell System was very much interested in transatlantic radio telephony, Karlís given job was to study static and its origin. And this is why he got into this field because the application- static was one of the limiting factors on transatlantic and transoceanic high-frequency radio telephony. But of course it wouldnít bother us now, because since that time theyíve developed the underwater cable and also the satellites for that purpose.

Sullivan

But what can you remember about- do you know of any records of any kind, maybe memos he might have written about wanting to do more, or proposals of any kind.

Jansky

I think that the best source of information on that would be his widow, very frankly. I will look though some of my correspondence with my father, but that will take a little time. And I may find some reference to it. I know that Karl did give some consideration, that is, I think this is correct, and yet I donít want to date without it, but there was some thought that he thought a little bit about leaving- I believe this is correct but I want to check it, that he wanted to leave and join the faculty of some university so he could continue his studies because he did want to continue his studies.

Sullivan

Of the extraterrestrial...

Jansky

Yeah, but I believe itís a safe statement that until Bell fully recognized its importance, there was this gap, and this is not unusual. Now one of the men, as Iíve told you, who has always been a very strong supporter of Karlís work was Ralph Bown, later Director at Bell Laboratories, now retired. And I got to know him very well because I served with him on the Board of Directors of the Institute of Radio Engineers. If I remember correctly- no, he was not a member of my board in 1934, but we used to see a good deal of each other- the year I was president í34.

Sullivan

Well he was Vice President at the time of- during the Ď30s, Bown was...

Jansky

Vice President of?

Sullivan

Bell Labs.

Jansky

Yes.

Sullivan

And yet still, even though he was in favor of it, apparently he wasnít able to...

Jansky

Well, they had a lot of problems. After all Bell labs- youíre bound to have things of that kind.

Sullivan

It is a commercial company of course.

Jansky

Of course. But one canít give too much credit to Bell Laboratories for the things that they have done in this and in other fields. Look at what they did in the development of the transistor.

Sullivan

Exactly. And theyíve done more in radio astronomy, too.

Jansky

Oh yes.

Sullivan

Penzias and Wilson ten years ago.

Jansky

Yes, youíre more familiar with that than I am, Iím sorry to say.

Sullivan

How long did Karl work at Bell Labs, right up until he died?

Jansky

Up until he- he was working there when he died.

Sullivan

But there are only about 2 or 3 papers that Iíve been able to find, the last one is í44 or something, that he published. So did he get more into administration in his later years?

Jansky

I think he was working more on other scientific problems, but just what he was working on, very frankly, I donít know.

Sullivan

Do you think it might have been published somewhere other than the Proceedings of the IRE, perhaps?

Jansky

No, well, I think weíve got all of his publications in the Bell Laboratories Record, and these things too.

Sullivan

Thatís it, ok.

Jansky

Thatís it, yes. Iím sorry I didnít have time to do a more thorough research job before you talked to me.

Sullivan

Oh, thatís quite all right. And when he finally did die, was it of this same disease, Brightís Disease?

Jansky

Yes it was. I was with the family in Redbank when he died.

Sullivan

And I guess he was never totally well during this whole time, is that correct?

Jansky

Well, yes- well, I wouldnít say that he was not because Karl was quite a tennis player and when it came to ping pong or table tennis, he was a champion of the county. Iíd say that his health was good, but some of those things, you know, donít show up until later. But, oh yes, I would say for many years his health was very good. But I have no doubt that his earlier illness had some influence on his death. No question about that. And he was quite the skater too. He played hockey. He was a member of the University of Wisconsin Hockey Team. So he was quite athletic. And as I say in Redbank, New Jersey, he played tennis and ping pong or table tennis if you want to call it. Ping Pong is a trade name.

Sullivan

Do you know if he knew about Grote Reberís work?

Jansky

Yes. And Grote Reber was one of the early men who early recognized the importance of Karlís work. Oh yes. Matter of fact, if my memory is correct and I think it is, Grote Reber visited with Karl. By the way he is still living.

Sullivan

Oh, heís still very much alive, yes.

Jansky

Well, youíd get a whole lot of things from him. Have you interviewed him?

Sullivan

Not yet. I definitely want to, though.

Jansky

Where is he?

Sullivan

In Ohio. He gets most of his money from Research Corporation. That ends the interview with Karl Janksyís brother at his home in Washington D.C. on 29 December í73.


Modified on Tuesday, 05-Feb-2013 15:19:48 EST by Ellen Bouton, Archivist (Questions or feedback)