[Reber, 1988]
Reber giving a lecture at Ohio State University, 1988 (Photo courtesy of NRAO/AUI/NSF)


[Reber, 1995]
Reber with the reconstructed Jansky antenna, 1995 (Photo courtesy of NRAO/AUI/NSF)


NATIONAL RADIO ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY ARCHIVES

Papers of Woodruff T. Sullivan III: Tapes Series

Interview with Grote Reber
At the University of Washington
October 25, 1975
Interview Time: 3 hours, 16 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.

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Sullivan

This is talking with Grote Reber at the University of Washington on 25 October í75. Now, I was asking you about the article you sent to Astrophysical Journal in 1940 and what was the reception that you got?

Reber

The reception was one of doubt. I was invited to come up there [Sullivan: to Yerkes Observatory] and give them a colloquium on the subject, which I did. As a matter of fact, I'd been up there a number of times beforehand because before undertaking the experiments I canvassed around to see what else was being done. And I'd been told by Jansky that they [Sullivan: Bell Labs] weren't going to do anything more. I'd contacted Shapley at Harvard. They were very aware of Jansky's work, but they weren't going to do anything. I talked to Struve at least once and perhaps several times with the idea of seeing if he could help raise some money to do these things and if they were going to do anything. And he said in effect that they weren't going to do anything and the reason they weren't was that they had their hands full with their own business and that they deemed this to be outside their sphere of competence. And as far as raising money was concerned, he didn't have enough money for his own purposes. In other words, they were aware of it but they weren't going to do anything. So here was a situation where a scientific opportunity was open and nobody was going to do anything.

Sullivan

What is your opinion as to, was it just a matter they felt that it wasn't that important and besides they didn't know anything about it? Is it fair to say they were shortsighted?

Reber

No, I wouldn't say they were short-sighted. You have to remember, in that day even the photoelectric cell and a D.C. amplifier were a mysterious black box. When it came to vacuum tubes and amplifiers, tube circuits, and all the rest of it, they just didn't have any comprehension of these matters. And they didn't build radio sets, they weren't even radio amateurs. If they needed a radio, they went out to a store and bought one. And consequently, from their point of view it would be foolish to embark on anything like this. The chances of them going wrong would be about a hundred to one.

Sullivan

But might they not have hired a couple of radio engineers if they thought that the astronomical results would be exciting enough, interesting enough...

Reber

I don't know what their thoughts on that were. The thing that dismayed them was the lack of resolution. The only data available was Jansky's that had a resolution of about 30į. In other words, you could tell the difference between the Milky Way and not the Milky Way and that was about all. Well, in their eyes anything as crude as that didn't have much astronomical merit.

Sullivan

Right, how were they ever going to tie it in with their optical work?

Reber

And they had no way of knowing how it could be improved. They weren't antenna engineers. And they were going to get in way over their ears if they weren't careful. I think this is characteristic of all the optical people. This branch of physics relating to electromagnetic waves, at least of this nature, just wasn't part of their repertoire and that's the reason Harvard didn't do anything and the others didn't do anything.

Sullivan

So did you contact anyone else besides Shapley and Struve to try to convince them, any other astronomers?

Reber

Well, I can't remember at this late date, but I do remember those two because Harvard was considered one of the leading observatories and Yerkes was close by. And I knew the people at Yerkes.

Sullivan

You probably were aware of the Whipple and Greenstein paper in 1937...?

Reber

Yes, I was aware of that.

Sullivan

So to a small extent Harvard did try to do it, theoretically anyway.

Reber

Yes. I've forgotten the details of that paper, but if I remember all it did was prove that the phenomena they proposed wouldn't work.

Sullivan

Right. Dust grains, mainly.

Reber

What was the phenomenon that they proposed?

Sullivan

Just thermal radiation of dust and they showed that the dust could not be any more than a few degrees.

Reber

Thatís right, I remember.

Sullivan

And yet the other [Sullivan: radio emission] was millions of degrees.

Reber

It wouldn't possibly work. And then I came forward with free-free transitions.

Sullivan

Right. Ok, there are so many things to ask you. How did you come up with the free-free idea? Where did that come from?

Reber

Really at this date I don't know. But free-free transitions were part of a course I took at the University of Chicago. I took some astronomy courses there and mathematics, and physics, and a variety of things. And in some manner free-free transitions were brought up to demonstrate some optical phenomena. I don't recall what that optical phenomenon was, maybe it had to do with corona of the Sun, I don't know. Anyhow, it came up and it was demonstrated that this phenomena, whatever it was could be explained in terms of free-free transitions, some high kinetic energies. And I thought to myself, you know this might be worthwhile investigating. So I took these same formulas and put in lower frequencies and some suitable temperatures and lo and behold it looked as though the numbers came out, might be vaguely within an order of magnitude fit Jansky's results, while Whipple and Greenstein didn't come within several orders of magnitude.

Sullivan

Do you remember which course this was, as to who taught it and so forth?

Reber

I think it was one I took with P.C. Keenan.

Sullivan

With him?

Reber

He was the instructor. I took quite a few courses there, I've forgotten the details of them.

Sullivan

As a graduate student more or less?

Reber

Yes. I had courses in infinite series and a whole lot of that kind of stuff, and geometric optics. It probably wouldn't be in any of those, probably in Keenan's course.

Sullivan

Do you know the topic of the course?

Reber

I don't know, but probably some kind of astrophysics.

Sullivan

Maybe stellar atmospheres?

Reber

Could be. Anyhow, it was in this course in astrophysics that this business of free-free transitions was brought forward to explain some optical phenomena. I thought to myself now here's a new scheme, this might be worth investigating from a Hertzian wave point of view. I put in some numbers and it looked pretty good. And that's that.

Sullivan

Right, so you published it first in the Proceedings of the IRE [Institute of Radio Engineers]?

Reber

That's right.

Sullivan

But now what was your motivation to try and put it into ApJ [Astrophysical Journal]?

Reber

That was a pretty crude dissertation- see this is all pretty far back- but I think the reason it went to the Institution of Radio Engineers was that the original paper that finally appeared in Astrophysical Journal a few months later, if you recall, mainly related to the results, you see. And Struve stuck to his guns that they were astronomers and not engineers and that he felt that anything that appeared in the Astrophysical Journal should be primarily related to astrophysics and not engineering. And I think what happened was, at this late date, that the part that I wanted to put in related to the equipment was edited out by Struve and so I sent it to the Institution of Radio Engineers. That's as clear as I can remember.

Sullivan

It seems to me that the ApJ paper is almost exactly the same as the IRE paper except for the elimination of the whole free-free interpretation.

Reber

Yes.

Sullivan

Which then is in Henyey and Keenan's paper afterwards. Not even the 1940 IRE paper has much on the equipment, the 1940. The 1942 one goes into a lot of detail.

Reber

That's right.

Sullivan

But are you saying that your original manuscript for the ApJ did have much more on equipment?

Reber

I think it did. I think it had pictures of that early equipment. If you remember some appeared and some data, that I'm pretty sure was all sent to Struve.

Sullivan

I see. And what about your theoretical work? So he wanted to cut out the description of the engineering side, but how did it work as far as the theory goes? What was his reaction about all this?

Reber

The reaction seemed to be that, at least as far as people at Yerkes were concerned, there was a wide spectrum. Keenan had an open mind, and he'd been the first one to come down and take a look and satisfy himself that it wasn't an out-and-out hoax. Attitudes ranged through doubt to innocuous disbelief to Kuiper who was at the other end of the scale and I remember distinctly him telling me that he thought I was crudely in error, that all I was getting was noises out of arc-lights. In other words, he was an absolute doubter. But he hadn't been there yet to see this stuff. And I don't think he was very cognizant, oh, he must have read or at least known about it but I don't think he'd taken the bother to read in any intelligent manner of Jansky's results. Struve had, I'm pretty sure. And people like Chandrasekhar sort of stood by the sidelines and looked to see what went on.

Sullivan

Watched the whole show and side with the victor after it was all over.

Reber

So it wasn't a situation where there was a tight group that had any particular ideas on this matter. There was a spectrum of opinion.

Sullivan

And did you discuss these results before you sent the paper off or before your colloquium? Or was it that all of a sudden this all came upon them...?

Reber

No. I must have discussed it individually with several of these people beforehand. Otherwise they wouldn't have given me the invitation to come and give them a talk.

Sullivan

And you gave the colloquium just before you submitted the paper more or less?

Reber

Oh, a year or so.

Sullivan

So it was more preliminary, I guess?

Reber

Yes, it was certainly within a few months of the time got some initial results. I think I got those initial results in the spring of '38, wasn't it?

Sullivan

Or '39, it says in your paper anyway.

Reber

Something like that. Well, it was within a few months of that. [Sullivan: was October 1939]

Sullivan

What was the reaction at the colloquium itself? Did you feel like you were in a den of lions?

Reber

I can't remember. There were quite a number of graduate students there, including this Olin Eggen, who is now in charge of Mount Stromlo, and he remembers that colloquium very well. In fact, listening to him he remembers it better than I do [Reber: So does John OíKeffe]. There were quite a few people there, maybe 30, maybe more, because most all the staff was there and a considerable number of graduate students. This was at Yerkes. I don't remember that there was anybody from the University [Sullivan: of Chicago] that came. There were quite a number of questions, but in retrospect I don't remember that they could be called intelligent questions. I think the background of the audience, that is the students and the professors, wasn't suitable. They didn't know enough to ask intelligent questions. And consequently there wasn't a great discussion about...

Sullivan

But they weren't...

Reber

They weren't against it.

Sullivan

I mean they weren't trying to knock you down either.

Reber

No.

Sullivan

It was just sort of outside, like you say, their sphere of knowledge.

Reber

Yes.

Sullivan

But now is it true that after you submitted this paper to Struve that he specifically at that time sent someone down to check you out, so to speak? This is the apocryphal story. I want to find out if it's apocryphal or true, I guess.

Reber

Struve himself didn't come. Keenan was down at least once on his own. Then he [Reber: Struve] came and I remember that Kuiper came with Keenan. Kuiper's attitude was very different at this time. It must have been within a year that he changed his mind. There were some others with him, who I don't remember. There may have been, now that I think about it, there probably were a couple of graduate students who came along. It was a party of half a dozen. I remember Keenan and Kuiper. Whether Chandrasekhar ever came or not, I don't know, I can't remember, he may have.

Sullivan

And did you have a definite impression that this was a proving for you, that whether or not your paper got published would depend on...?

Reber

No, I don't think so. I think that was determined before that. You ask me questions about which I really don't have any great knowledge. I wasn't a member of the staff at Yerkes or on the Editorial Board or anything. But the impression I got was that the Astrophysical Journal as of that day was pretty much solely edited by Otto Struve. And what he decided went in and what he decided went out. It wasn't by any referee system or anything like that. This is just my impression. So after Keenan had been there and we discussed these things, then a second delegation came, half a dozen, as I say. And I think there were some other visits. Oh, I know there were, not immediately, but in succeeding years. Oh, I got quite a few delegations that would come.

Sullivan

Well, Jesse Greenstein told me he came.

Reber

Oh yes, say, he maybe was on that second group, probably now that you mention it because I know he was there, just when I don't remember any more.

Sullivan

And what did you do on these visits? Did you move the dish around for them and show them how the signal varied, etc.?

Reber

I showed them some of the results. And, of course, they always came in the daytime when the automobile ignition was very severe, so you couldn't show them anything very interesting as far as results were concerned, being taken. Whether or not that particular group or a succeeding group, I donít know. There were some groups or some individuals, who I urged to come an hour before noon and watch the equipment as the Sun transited. And this was quite impressive.

Sullivan

This was after you detected the Sun, of course?

Reber

Oh, yes, 1943. Because that's about all you could show them in the daytime. And then still later, about 1945 when solar activity rose, there wasn't anybody from the Observatory, but there was somebody else, in fact, three other people. One of them was Ken Norton of the Bureau of Standards. They showed up by pre-arrangement on a particular day, early, maybe 10:30 in the morning because I wanted to show them what happened when the Sun went by. This is at 480 megacycles by this time. It must have been 1946. And it dumbfounded me too, but what happened was that the Sun was very active that day, far beyond anything I had ever encountered, and way before the Sun was supposed to transit there were a lot of small blips on the record. And you could listen, swssshwhishing noises, and they disappeared after about maybe five minutes. And then they came in again only stronger and they rose and fell, rose and fell. And then they disappeared. The second time some of them went nearly to the top of the scale. And the third time when the Sun should transit there were a few of these blips then the pen rapped right up hard against the pin and stayed up there for about 15 minutes. And then it came down again. And then it went through this same cycle in reverse.

Sullivan

So these were sidelobes...

Reber

Sidelobes.

Sullivan

I mean did you know you had all these sidelobes out there?

Reber

No, You wouldn't find the sidelobes in normal conditions but these things were about 40 dB or 50 dB up. And I remember these fellows saying, "Look, the thing's off scale," and I said, "Yeah, it's off scale," and he said, "Well, turn the gain down," and I said, "You can't turn the gain down that much, it will only turn down maybe eight or ten dB, that's not near enough." "Oh," they said, "there must be some way of turning the gain down." I remember somebody said, "How do you know it's coming from the Sun, this is maybe something else?" So we went out and we unloosened the machine and turned it away from the Sun and it all went away. So we turned it back to the Sun and it all came back. And that really convinced them.

Sullivan

No doubt about it.

Reber

It was tremendous. It was nothing like anything I'd ever seen.

Sullivan

Just to go back to one more question about the 1940 paper. Was it a matter that Struve said to you, "Well, here's how much of your paper we publish," and you were happy just to get that published?

Reber

Yes, I think that's what it arrived to.

Sullivan

And did you know that Henyey and Keenan were going to essentially- I mean they gave you credit for the idea, but then they went ahead and worked it out in much more detail.

Reber

Yeah, as a matter of fact, I think, vaguely now, Struve didn't issue an ultimatum, but he stated that these astronomical matters should be dealt with by astronomers. And he sort of instructed Keenan that he needed to work this thing up and to write up a paper which would be a supplement to mine. I think it was fair.

Sullivan

Yes, it's a good compromise. That's what Keenan told me, yeah. That was his impression; once again he wasn't exactly sure.

Reber

In other words, they were to work it up properly.

Sullivan

Ok, if we can I'd like to go back now to right back to the beginning, so to speak. And ask you a little bit about your background, if you don't mind, about where you grew up and so forth.

Reber

I grew up in childhood in Wheaton, Illinois.

Sullivan

I see, that your home town actually.

Reber

Oh yes. I was born in Chicago but as soon as I was a few days old they took me out there to the maternal home. There's an interesting thing in relation to that. Most babies make their presence known long before they are born, and so there is a lot of discussion about what the newcomer is going to be, and there's a whole variety of names associated with the newcomer, to be slapped on him as soon as he arrives. Well, my parents were sort of delinquent in that matter. I guess I was the chief feature of the action, but in any case I don't remember these things at that stage. However, my birth certificate testifies simply that a male child had been born to so and so, and so and so, one "Baby Reber." Thatís all it said. Apparently they had to issue this birth certificate within 48 hours or something, and by that time they hadn't been able to make up their minds. So that's on the birth certificate.

Sullivan

What is the name Grote, by the way? It's not a common name.

Reber

Well, a custom of a lot of central European people to give the child the mother's maiden name as a middle name. And then to give him some ordinary handle for the first name. So I should have gotten a name like Henry or William or Frederick, or something like that, then be say, William Grote Reber. They didn't do that. My mother was Harriet Grote, so they called me Grote Reber.

Sullivan

Your mother's maiden name, I see.

Reber

Well, this has been sort of a nuisance throughout life because I should be called Bill or Hank or something.

Sullivan

Oh, I don't know, you get tired of those names.

Reber

Anyhow, they were delinquent in that and in that day it didn't make much difference because birth certificates were just pieces of paper that nobody paid much attention and to. But as time went on, we got more regimented and birth certificates became more important. Very fortunately about 1940 before my mother died, my father died rather earlier, I had her write a document signed by a Notary Public testifying that this "Baby Reber" on the birth certificate was in fact the same individual that was Grote Reber. This has been of considerable assistance because if I had a birth certificate, that all it's got on it is "Baby Reber." Anyhow, those two are stapled together now.

Sullivan

So, was all your primary and secondary schooling in Wheaton also?

Reber

Oh, yes. Matter of fact, the primary school was less than two blocks of where we lived. Secondary schooling was 3/4 of a mile away.

Sullivan

And when did you first start getting involved in radio?

Reber

Oh, when I was in high school, I was one of these radio amateur fellows.

Sullivan

This is about what time now?

Reber

We lived in a fairly free and easy manner, but far from opulence. This was sort of an open place and there was a good garage out in back and there was a large yard. We had half an acre to fool around in. We had trees, my parents did some gardening, and we had a few animals like cats and dogs, things like that. And there were some rather large trees around we'd climb and they were super for hanging aerial wires on, that kind of thing.

Sullivan

What time is this now, what year roughly?

Reber

Well, I maybe was a junior in high school by the time I got my first radio amateur license.

Sullivan

But what year would that be?

Reber

Oh boy, 1928, maybe. Thatíd be about right- I was born in 1911, 1928 I'd be about 17, that would be about a junior in high school.

Sullivan

And may I ask what profession your father was?

Reber

Yes, he was a canned-good manufacturer. He was a senior partner in a firm of Reber Preserving Company. It was just a small operation. They sold most of their products in Chicago. The factory was in a place called Eola, E-O-L-A, about maybe 15 miles from Wheaton. He inherited it from my grandfather. I had an aunt once [Reber: Myrtle], a sort of social climber and she thought it would probably enhance her social position if she could become a member of the D.A.R. [Daughters of the American Revolution] and so she hired one of these chronology people to search out her ancestry. And I'm pretty sure this is right, but anyhow, it was through her that it was found out that part of the Rebers that we descended from were a couple of Reber brothers who came into Pennsylvania from near Strasbourg in, I think, 1708. And they were just farmers and lived in Pennsylvania, I think, in Bucks County or somewhere. Anyhow, then during the Civil War my grandfather fought on the side of the North, but he wasn't exactly a military man and so he got himself captured and in that day they exchanged prisoners. The theory was that if you were exchanged you couldn't do anymore fighting, you could only support them in some non-military capacity. So effectively after he got himself traded off, then he was out of the War, all of this was related to me in very much later years. Anyhow, he decided he wanted to go where he thought there was more opportunity. I don't know what his background was, I guess nothing in particular. At least I was never told that he had any training in anything. And he came out to Chicago and he set up on his own manufacturing preserves, jams and jellies, that kind of thing. He prospered because he was a very industrious individual. They had the Reber Preserving Works and he had several sons and he named them, I guess customary in those days, after people he thought were important. One of them who died before my time was an Irving Reber, apparently named after Washington Irving. Although I gather my uncle, whom I never knew, had no literary capability whatsoever.

Sullivan

It was an attempt anyway.

Reber

Yes, from the canners at the preserve works. Then I had another uncle who died not so long ago who was named after the inventor of the steam engine, James Watt [Reber: he had no mechanical ability whatsoever].

Sullivan

James Watt Reber. And what was your father's name?

Reber

He was named after a Pennsylvania politician, whom my grandfather thought was quite a fellow, named Schuyler Colfax. I gather from more recent comments that he was a somewhat dubious politician [Reber: My father had no political ambitions]. In any case, that's the way it was.

Sullivan

But now you did not inherit the canning works, I presume? You decided you wanted to do something else?

Reber

Well, it was still going some years ago, but I had no interest in that. And it gradually passed into hands of one of my cousins and the last that I know he was running it.

Sullivan

What did you do after high school?

Reber

It was by that time very evident that I wanted to do something in engineering. And I was sort of inclined electrically, so my parents had the wisdom and foresight to send me to the Engineering School in Chicago called the Armour Institute of Technology. It later amalgamated with something else and became what's now the Illinois Institute of Technology and that "A" is this A for Armour. It was a school where they taught engineering, you know with calculus and all the rest of it. And they had a dynamo lab and chemistry lab, and this kind of thing. And we got a pretty good inculcation in the actual doings of engineering. But they leaned over heavily on things which I think are skipped today pretty much in that we had a lot of stuff which would be called trades.

Sullivan

Machine shops and...?

Reber

Oh yes, foundry machine shop, pattern making, forging, a lot of that stuff. In fact the first two years were heavily given to this trade stuff. I think in later years the more intellectual ends of the school got control of it and pitched most of that out. But it served me in good stead because now I can go out into shops and talk to these guys and not be given a lot of guff.

Sullivan

So you went to this school for four years?

Reber

Four years, graduated with a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering.

Sullivan

And what year?

Reber

1933.

Sullivan

And then what was your next step?

Reber

That was in the Depression and so I worked around at odd jobs of one kind or another. Finally I got work in the radio industry in Chicago. It must have been about a year later.

Sullivan

Which company?

Reber

I worked for three radio companies at different times until 1947.

Sullivan

Can you tell me which companies?

Reber

Yes, I worked for Belmont Radio Corporation, Stewart Warner Corporation and General Household Utilities. I think they've all disappeared now, either by going bankrupt or by amalgamation.

Sullivan

And what sort of work did you do for these?

Reber

I did various things. First I worked in a test equipment department, making and constructing test equipment for testing their products. I didn't actually test the receivers, but I helped build and install the equipment used for testing receivers. The actual testing of the receivers was considered a laboring job.

Sullivan

These receivers were home radio sets?

Reber

And automobile radio sets, that's about the only kind of sets they manufactured at that time, auto radio and home radio. Then apparently I had a certain amount of ability and I got moved up into the Engineering Department, first as what they called "solder-slinger," that is, you know, putting all these samples together. And then later manipulating the test gear and designing the radio sets. And I worked in that capacity until 1947.

Sullivan

So towards the end, those last years you were actually designing radio circuits and so forth?

Reber

Yes.

Sullivan

For a wide variety of applications.

Reber

In there, of course, were the War years and in that case we didn't design anything, but we took the samples- these military agencies would come forward with radar, IFF or direction-finding gear or something that they'd built in the government laboratories and then they'd want us to manufacture them.

Sullivan

What does IFF stand for?

Reber

Identification: Friend or Foe.

Sullivan

I know what this is, right.

Reber

The scheme as that if you had aircraft out in the skies, you want to find out whether they're your aircraft or somebody else's aircraft, in other words to identify them. And so there was a thing on the ground called an "interrogator" and it sent out a pulse and then if it was your aircraft it would send back the proper code. And then you donít shoot at it.

Sullivan

Right, these people manufactured these things?

Reber

That's right. So I assisted in the organization of these things and helped them get them made. That was during the War years. And then after the War we went back to making radio sets.

Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


Modified on Tuesday, 12-Feb-2013 08:51:28 EST by Ellen Bouton, Archivist (Questions or feedback)