[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 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.

Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Sullivan

Ok, this is continuing with Grote Reber on 25 October ’75. I was asking you if you ever had any interest in astronomy.

Reber

Well, yes. I was always, I think, from a child interested in astronomy. I attempted I remember a number of times to talk to my parents, but they weren't interested in these things. They weren't any more interested in science or the world surrounding them than the people are today. Most people are pretty uninterested in the natural world that surrounds them. And I was given a camera at a rather early age, maybe 12 or so, and just recently within the past few weeks when I was digging through my archives I stumbled over some old photographs I'd taken at that stage. I don't know exactly when they were, but they must have been in the 1920s. I'd apparently set the camera on a fence post with the shutter open and took pictures of the stars and got streaks; some I've made notations on. I think there was a configuration of four planets out in the west. I took pictures of these... I remember now. These were developed and, of course, I'd expected to see the streaks of the bright planets. But I was dumbfounded to find streaks on there of stars which I couldn't even see. This I'm sure was before 1930.

Sullivan

This is during high school probably, or junior high school, maybe?

Reber

Because we moved ’32 [Reber: 1934], not far, just 50 yards or so, and pictures are taken from a place which must have been when I lived in the old home. So it would have been before 1930. You see I was fairly young at the time.

Sullivan

And did you study any astronomy at the Institute?

Reber

No. See astronomy was not the kind of thing you'd get in engineering school.

Sullivan

I thought there might have been an odd course, or something.

Reber

No, I read some astronomical books, you know, of my own volition at the local library. Incidentally, the small town of Wheaton, I don't know what the population was at that day, maybe 3,500, but it was very fortunate in having some wealthy people who were public spirited and one of them had given a very fine library to the community. I guess it's still there. And I got books from that, but that was all.

Sullivan

Ok, so you did have a peripheral interest in astronomy anyway. But I think you're sort of curious about everything that's going on around you.

Reber

Oh, that’s true.

Sullivan

Astronomy was one of them. And when did you first become aware of Jansky's work?

Reber

I think very soon, at the time those papers were published. I was a radio amateur and naturally interested in radio. I didn't have much of any money at that time, nobody did. So I didn't go off buying magazines. But the school that I was going to had these engineering magazines and I used to read them regularly because they had a lot of interesting articles about equipment. And this article by Jansky today probably wouldn't have been published in an engineering magazine. It probably would be some physics magazine or astronomy. Anyhow, it appeared in this engineering magazine and I was immediately greatly struck by it.

Sullivan

Even the first article?

Reber

Oh, yes. You see I was still in school and I didn't have any money or anything. Times were very different. The young people today have no comprehension of how things were then. Everyone today has lots of money in their pocket but nobody had any money in their pocket in that day. And it wasn't until I had gotten out of school and was able to make my own way that I had enough money to do anything with.

Sullivan

Are you implying that if you had some money at that time that you might have wanted to follow up Jansky's work right then?

Reber

Perhaps, perhaps. Although it's speculation.

Sullivan

It's hard to say, of course.

Reber

But in retrospect it's pretty easy to see. I got interested in actively doing something about 1936. Well, I got out of school in '33, there was at least a year or more before I got a job worth anything, so it was about 1935 by the time I got a job where I could support myself and have anything left over. So it was probably about the following year that I felt affluent enough to have any wherewithal to do anything.

Sullivan

And by this time Jansky had published two additional papers, of course.

Reber

That's right.

Sullivan

Which probably whetted your appetite even further.

Reber

Could well be. And I remember writing to Jansky. I think I can still produce a letter, asking him- you see by this time I was working in the radio industry in Chicago. I wrote to him asking him if they were going to do anything more on this. And if they were I would like to be considered as an applicant for such job as might be open. And he wrote back and said they weren't going to do anything more, and unfortunately that was that.

Sullivan

Now I have some questions here that I wanted to ask you about Jansky. You may not know them, but here is one of them: What do you know about why Bell Labs did not follow it up? Did Jansky really want to and his bosses wouldn't let him? Do you know anything about all this?

Reber

I wasn't there and there seems to be a difference of opinion. This man from New Hope, Pennsylvania wrote a book where he purported to go around and interview Jansky's relatives and read Jansky's letters.

Sullivan

Oh, you mean Pfeiffer?

Reber

I guess so.

Sullivan

John Pfeiffer?

Reber

Yes, I think that's the guy.

Sullivan

In the ‘50s he wrote that book, yes.

Reber

Anyhow, he attempts to develop a case that Jansky was suppressed. I have no information on that whatsoever. Then some years later, not too many years later, Friis writes himself some letters in Nature or Science, defending himself saying that he wasn't the guy that suppressed Jansky. Now I have no information whatsoever about any of that.

Sullivan

You don't. I thought you might have known Jansky well.

Reber

Oh, no. I met him two or three times, but that was all.

Sullivan

I see. Ok, I've got to do some more digging at Bell Labs to try and get this story straight.

Reber

I don't think you can. I'd say this, you see your memory gets fuzzy. Preparatory for this Jansky lecture [Sullivan: given at NRAO] I've been digging through my archive down there [Reber: Tasmania]. Burke and Franklin from the Carnegie discovered radio waves from Jupiter by accident in 1955 at a frequency of 22 megacycles. At that time I was in Tasmania making my first exploratory experiments. And I looked through my old Hawaii records and I was able to find some in 1952-1953 which I could attribute to Jupiter at about 20 megacycles. I didn't recognize them as such.

Sullivan

A similar effect, Shain did the same thing, of course.

Reber

Yes, even earlier about 1950-'51. So I thought to myself, "By golly I'll bet you Jansky's got a lot of that stuff [Sullivan: Jupiter]." He had over a year of continuous recordings. So I wrote to the Bell Labs at 453 West Street, saying just what I told you, that I would like to find out about the situation on Jansky's recordings, that I would be in the States the next year and I would like an opportunity to look these things over. I got a letter back rather promptly from somebody saying that they had Jansky's notebook and folded into the pages of the notebook was one of his recordings. But all the others had mysteriously disappeared. So I didn't follow it up. But then I found you see, your memory gets poor, that's why written pieces of paper are better than just memory. That's the reason I'm a bit dubious about you taping all these recordings.

Sullivan

No, I take that into account. I mean, before you really believe anything you have to have some more documentation for it. They're all such useful leads.

Reber

Anyhow, just within the past few weeks in digging through my archives I found a piece of paper in my handwriting and it's dated the 18th of February 1956. It says, "According to Southworth, Jansky's recordings were kept in an old farmhouse which was demolished in 1949, H. T. Friis in charge." That all it said. I don't remember this. Apparently it was a telephone conversation. And I have no record that I followed up with Friis or anybody else. But that little piece of paper is there, in my handwriting.

Sullivan

That may have been the fate of Jansky's recordings though.

Reber

So, so... Anyhow, that was 1956. Now, another thing happened entirely unconnected and unexpected. But in 1960 or ‘61, I was at Green Bank, West Virginia, supervising the reconstruction of my dish. And they were embarking on some microwave experiments because about that time the 85 foot dish was being completed, although it was quite a few years before the 140 foot dish got finished. And they had some pretty competent technicians there and a couple of good engineers. Anyhow, they invited down from Bell Labs a man named A. C. Beck, who was a contemporary of Jansky's, to look at what their microwave boys were doing because Beck apparently was an expert on this microwave relay stuff. And they wanted to get some independent opinion on the competence of what was going on at Green Bank. So Beck was there on that mission. He was there for two or three days. And so I had an opportunity to sit down a number of times and talk to Beck. Beck was a contemporary of Jansky's. He didn't participate with what Jansky was doing but he was there at the time doing other things and very aware of what Jansky was doing. If you recall the famous photograph of Jansky in knickers and his big machine, it shows that the antenna arms are pipes and that the machine is supported on wheels that have pneumatic tires. After Jansky's experiments were finished, Beck used that machine. The parts were taken off and it was used for setting up an antenna measuring experiment. That is, the transmitter was put off at some distance and the antenna under test was put on this machine and turned around and they got the pattern. And he was very positive that that machine had hard rubber tires, absolutely. So this merely tells you that somewhere in the interim the Service Department got tired of inflating the tires and put on hard rubber ones.

Sullivan

Because originally they were old Model A tires?

Reber

That's right. Model T's, I think.

Sullivan

Let me ask a more general question. Do you know now of any archives to do with Jansky's work?

Reber

That's what I'm getting to. So, Beck had a lot of records too. The electronic gear was different but apparently the same Leeds and Northrup recorder using the same charts. And according to him there was what he called a red barn. And his records were stored in the red barn. And these records of his, Beck's, were in cartons placed alongside cartons which contained Jansky's records. And he recalls very positively that they were both there. Now the year I don't know.

Sullivan

But this was back in the early ‘60s?

Reber

Oh, further than that, before 1949.

Sullivan

Well, he told you this around 1960. He recalls that they were there around 1949.

Reber

Yes. Maybe in the middle ‘40s. In the Bell Labs Journals there are a number of papers on antennas and propagation where Beck has his name attached. I think Beck is still alive.

Sullivan

Well, I was just checking that as a matter of fact. Do you know if Friis is still alive?

Reber

I think so, he was a few years ago.

Sullivan

I haven't been able to find him anywhere. Penzias told me about Beck, let me see if I can find that. Yes, now living in Florida. I haven’t been able to look him up but I guess I haven’t really tried. I should definitely try to talk with him, shouldn't I?

Reber

Well, anyhow Beck's records and Jansky's records were stored in what Beck called the old red barn which probably was the same thing that Southworth called the old house. And Beck then apparently was assigned to other work and he's no longer at Holmdel. And he then comes back, according to Beck, he came back some dozen years later. And this place where Jansky's machine was and the red barn or the old house now was a huge structure, a tremendous laboratory. Everything had been gone. So Beck tried to find out what happened to his recordings and of course, there isn't anybody there that knows anything about it because everybody there now is new. He hardly could find anybody that was there when he was there about a dozen years prior. And he gets apparently sort of annoyed, you know, he just gets the runaround, and so he hunts up a yards man or a grounds man, a caretaker, and questions him. And lo and behold now the mystery is solved. That orders had come from New York sometime about 1949 that they’ve got to clear this place preparatory to building a new laboratory. And so everything is cleared off and this structure of the old barn is demolished and everything in it is done for. And they were told to make a clean sweep and clean everything up. So this grounds man cleans everything up. And this particular bloke, whose name Beck told me, but I've forgotten, is the fellow that burned all the records. So they've definitely gone up in smoke.

Sullivan

What a shame.

Reber

The mystery of what happened to Jansky's charts is now solved but this, of course, merely brings forward another mystery as to how this kind of a thing happens. Now, I'm telling you what Beck told me and if you want you can see Beck and confirm it. Now, if Friis hears this, he's not going to like it, because I think he was the guy in charge, but I have nothing to do with it.

Sullivan

Well, these things happen, they're a shame.

Reber

Because I think I brought this up with Beck on the basis of what about Jansky's records on Jupiter. And then he told me what I've just told you.

Sullivan

Yes, I calculated that Jansky would have easily been able to see solar bursts or Jupiter bursts.

Reber

Sure.

Sullivan

But of course it was solar minimum so he was hurting there. But that helped him actually because he didn't have all this interference.

Reber

Sure.

Sullivan

Well, let me ask another thing, do you know how Jansky took your work? Was he sort of glad to see finally someone following it up?

Reber

Oh, I think so. Sure. The couple of times I met him he complimented me on what I'd been able to do and sort of wished he'd been able to do it, but that was all.

Sullivan

Did you see yourself as following in the footsteps of Jansky?

Reber

Oh, yes.

Sullivan

It seems that way.

Reber

Oh, definitely. I mean if he hadn't made the discovery certainly I would have never undertaken anything like that. It would have been foolish. You have to remember at that date I didn't know anything about Lodge or Edison or Nordmann, those all came to light much later.

Sullivan

Right, I think finally when the bibliographies were together after the War. While we're talking about Jansky let me ask you, in 1948 or '49 in Sky and Telescope you published Jansky's measurements in the form of a contour map on the sky. Now where did you get the data to do that? Was it only what he published?

Reber

If you look through Jansky's papers, he gives one 24-hour period of very clear data.

Sullivan

Yes, I know that figure.

Reber

And I scaled that stuff off and converted to galactic coordinates and that's it. That's where it came from. Look on that date [Sullivan: in Sky and Telescope figure] and it's the same date that he did.

Sullivan

Right, that's what I figured but I wanted to make sure. And also as far as Jansky's antenna pattern, did you make a detailed calculation of exactly what it was or just an estimate?

Reber

In the correspondence I had with Jansky he gave me the parameters, that is the polar coordinate diagrams, both vertical and horizontal.

Sullivan

He only published the horizontal one. He never published the vertical one.

Reber

Well, he gave me both.

Sullivan

I see.

Reber

Including the ground reflection coefficient. And so I computed them both. I still have those. As a matter of fact I looked at them within the past few weeks, those diagrams and all that stuff that Jansky gave me, formulas and everything. And the pattern is the same 30° wide in azimuth, but in the vertical it's about 60° up here and about 20° here.

Sullivan

Yes, you quoted 37° I think, at one point.

Reber

Something like that.

Sullivan

It's asymmetric, too, isn't it? In the vertical direction?

Reber

Oh, yes, because it doesn't come down to the ground. It can't. 37° half power beam width I guess, but that's not from the ground. There's about 15° there from the ground.

Sullivan

Right. I've been trying to re-do all this but it seems like you've got the information I need, like the ground reflectivity and all that. Another question about Jansky's paper I've never been able to figure out is that he quotes the end of his first paper, "That the maximum signal that he got for this strange hiss was .39 microvolts per meter." And that maximum seems to be far more than any of his traces, or that anything else he talks about. He just adds this sentence on at the end. I can't make it tie in anywhere. Do you remember anything of this as to what that means? All the other values he quotes seem to be much lower than that.

Reber

I wouldn't know.

Sullivan

Well, maybe I can show you the paper after we finished and it might ring a bell. I wanted to ask you, do you have a bibliography of all of your papers?

Reber

No.

Sullivan

I've put one together as far as I can do.

Reber

That list of stuff that's at the bottom of the 1958 paper is pretty complete. I don't think much has been left out.

Sullivan

Ok. Another question here about the early days which will get us into this article on, "Early Radio Astronomy at Wheaton, Illinois," [Sullivan: Proceedings of the IRE, 1958] and I have several questions. I have contacted a fellow named Lutz that you apparently wrote to. He was at Indiana I think, S. G. Lutz.

Reber

How do you spell that?

Sullivan

L-U-T-Z.

Reber

I don't remember. Go on. What did I say?

Sullivan

He was an expert on microwave tubes at Purdue. And I was told that he was an early radio expert, but I didn't realize that when I called him up he would actually have had some contact with you. Apparently he received a letter from you around 1937 requesting help in building a close-spaced diode, so you could do this high-frequency work. And he indeed was doing research in this sort of thing. He had the technology, but according to him himself he was uncooperative because you would not give the purpose of your project. And he says he really regrets now that he missed his chance to help because he says that he's a little bit on the wild side himself, that he always likes to go for these far-out projects. And that all he can deduce is that you wouldn't tell him because then you would be branded a nut because it would be sort of like interstellar communication or something.

Reber

I don't remember anything about that.

Sullivan

You don't remember this at all? Do you remember similar or other attempts of trying to get aid from people and sort of getting rebuffed because it was too wild an idea?

Reber

Obviously I did write to this gent if he's got my letter. And the reply I got obviously was negative, and so I've forgotten it. I probably wrote to other people. There was an article in some German magazine where they built a diode that had a glass bellows that could be expanded and contracted slightly to change the spacing between the anode and the cathode. And I wrote to this German concern, Telefunken or whoever it was, requesting would they build one for me. And they wrote back in German, which I had translated, that they would. But they wanted $200, which was a tremendous price. You could buy a real good used car for $200 in that day. And so that was the end of that. Now beyond that I don't remember.

Sullivan

Well, I suppose then your main source of equipment and so forth was what you could get from the company where you were working at the time?

Reber

That's right.

Sullivan

You could borrow stuff temporarily and...

Reber

I was in a preferred position, that is, I was in a good location, not living in a Chicago flat or something like that. That is I had this home out in the suburbs, which wasn't as good as a country home but it was open and spacious with some room there to do something. And I was not stamped upon by relatives. I worked in the city in the engineering departments of radio manufacturers and had access to what was at that day the best electronic equipment available. Some of it was useful, some of it wasn't. The main difficulty was that the frequencies I was interested in were not the kind of frequencies used by the electronic test equipment. But to the extent I could use it, yes. And I don't know how things are today, but they were pretty liberal, i.e., I could come in there on Saturdays, I had a key and I could come and work in the shop and build things, stay at night, and that kind of stuff.

Sullivan

By the way, was this home where the antenna was, was this your old family home? Did you continue to live there?

Reber

No, really. The old family home was 225 West Wesley Street. Well, about 50 yards away on the next street, this was an open square, there was another house which had been built by my parent apparently to live in when they were married but they never did [Reber: by my mother as an investment in 1917. My parents built a third house three blocks away but only lived there a few years.] They came to live with her folks who I gathered were getting on in years. And so I was brought up in the old home while the one that they had built for their use was apparently rented and we only moved over there quite many years later, about 1932 or ’33 [Reber: 1934].

Sullivan

But you did live there during this whole time?

Reber

On this square, yes.

Sullivan

What I'm trying to get at you were living right where the antenna was?

Reber

Yes.

Sullivan

And you say all this property now belongs to the Illinois Bell Telephone Company?

Reber

That's right, we sold it to the Bell Telephone Company.

Sullivan

But the houses are not there anymore, I take it?

Reber

Oh, the houses were moved. The houses are still there, at least last time I saw them a dozen years ago. They've been moved to another location. In other words they're still in existence.

Sullivan

You mention here [Sullivan: Proceedings of the IRE, 1958] that, when you were doing your ham operating, that on quiet nights, "It was always possible to make the receiver quieter by taking off the antenna." Do you have any more ideas as to whether that really was cosmic noise or not?

Reber

I don't know. The reason I took off the antenna was simply when you put the transmitter on the air, I had an antenna-disconnect switch.

Sullivan

I see, so it may or may not have been. You came upon the idea to build a large parabolic reflector and I'd like to ask you how did you come to that idea? I think that this dish must have been the largest of its kind, in the world.

Reber

It probably was at that day.

Sullivan

And I presume that radio engineers had built some small ones but was it all completely your own design work on how much the thing would deflect, and how accurate it had to be, and what the best f/d ratio and all this sort of thing was?

Reber

Well, it wasn't that detailed, but the f/d ratio, I think I explain in there, was determined by the pattern that came out of the end of an open wave guide. And so I decided that it had to have, whatever it was, 6/10ths f/d ratio.

Sullivan

So it was determined by just the feed then?

Reber

That's right. And as far as the rest of the structure was concerned it was expediency, i.e., the longest four-by-two's I could get in the local lumber yard were 20 feet long. So without having to splice, how big a framework could I build in which the longest member was 20 feet. And that turned out to be something that would hold about a 32 foot dish. That's all.

Sullivan

Amazing. And you talk about the frequency that you observed was determined by the size of the drum that you got for the first high frequency stuff.

Reber

Sure. For all these things there was nothing else to go on. There was no reason why any frequency should be better or worse than any other frequency.

Sullivan

But the amazing thing to me though is that your 30 foot antenna looked very similar to this 30 foot antenna here that we've been talking about that now is at Battelle [Northwest, Richland, WA.].

Reber

Yes, except that's got a shorter f/d ratio.

Sullivan

Yes, but not terribly different.

Reber

No, not different in great amount.

Sullivan

But it seems like you happened upon it by chance in what now is known to be the right design, or the optimum design.

Reber

Well, I don't know, but supposing you had an open selection of choices. You could have something which was very deep. It was obvious from the pattern that came out of the end of the wave guide, that a very deep one wouldn't be suitably illuminated. So that was out. On the other hand, supposing we had something very shallow. This then has very long focal length. And unless very long focal length had some particular merit, it was going to be a difficult thing to build. So between these two you came up with sort of a compromise. And that what it was. That's all.

Sullivan

I see.

Reber

Most of these thing people try to read too much into, i.e., there wasn't a lot of intelligent, deep, theoretical thought on these things. You had all these various options and you sort of shuffled them around and came up with one that looked pretty good.

Sullivan

Well, I think the point is that you had a very good feel for what...

Reber

Well, maybe so.

Sullivan

The average person would have come up with a very different set of options that wouldn't work.

Reber

In other words shuffle them around and maybe not come up with some satisfactory.

Sullivan

Right. Now, you say here, "I conceived the idea of using a single dipole inside a short length of wave guide at the focus of the mirror." Like I say, presumably there had been smaller antennas before that had been illuminated with a feed and so forth so that was not an original idea. You just scaled it to a larger size, is that correct? What were the unique problems that you had to face?

Reber

I don't quite know the answer, but it was apparent you had to have some kind of a collector device which would collect from the direction you chose to look at and exclude radiations from all spurious directions. And spurious directions weren't going to be limited merely by the diffraction pattern, but they were going to be limited by what was called "leakage" coming in not through the dish but around the dish.

Sullivan

Spillover is what we call it.

Reber

And so the antenna itself, the actual pick-up, had to be in some kind of a case or some kind of a box which would shield it from the surroundings. That's really all it amounted to.

Sullivan

What about the accuracy of the surface? Was it obvious that it had to be accurate to a 10th of a wavelength, or something like that?

Reber

Or a quarter of a wavelength, yes. So it was built as accurately as possible, but in the meantime, you see while this was going on, I was doing those experiments with a magnetron tube. And it became apparent that the shortest wavelength to which I was going to have any access was on the order of 8-9 cm. A 10th of a wavelength like that would be maybe 1 cm, which is say 3/8 of an inch, and so the overall accuracy was within 3/8 or a 1/4 of an inch, that would be all that would be possibly needed. And that was fairly easy to achieve because all these ribs, I got all those cut to ± a 16th. They were easy to cut out. And then I never did know what the accuracy of the dish was when tipped, but when it was pointed straight up- see there's a flat plane, reference plane, that the ribs are fastened to. And that reference plane was set up accurately to about ± a 16th or so by washers.

Sullivan

Shims, you mean?

Reber

Yes. So you had that reference plane leveled up.

Sullivan

Then you referenced your parabola to that plane?

Reber

Exactly. So supposing there was a 16th error there. Then there might be a 16th error in the vertical stays, rods, there might be another 16th error in the ribs, perhaps another 16th in the bending. So it was reasonably estimated to ± 1/4". That would be good enough.

Sullivan

Well, that would be a maximum deviation. They would normally not combine all together.

Reber

Oh, yes, I see what you mean. Yes, it would be a maximum there. The average would probably be a lot, maybe an eighth. If you take that 1/8 inch and divide it into 32 feet, you have a pretty fair size sum, i.e., I think that's what they characterize dishes on now, the ratio of the average error to the diameter.

Sullivan

Right. But now I haven't asked you perhaps the most fundamental question; can you give me any insight into what in the world came over you to embark on such a huge project, in your back yard essentially?

Reber

It was pretty big, true. But I was already convinced in the beginning that there was no sense in fooling around with something small.

Sullivan

Because of the resolution?

Reber

That's right. And the ability to pick things up, pick energy up. So it had to be as big as I could possibly handle. That's all. The reason it wasn't 50 feet was that I didn't have the wherewithal either financially or mechanically to build anything bigger. That's all.

Sullivan

But still this was taking up all of your spare time for many, many years.

Reber

Oh, yes.

Sullivan

You must have committed yourself to this essentially.

Reber

Yes, that is I took a summer off and didn't do anything else.

Sullivan

That was the summer of '37, I think?

Reber

1937, yeah. About the time I changed jobs, I think I shifted from Stewart Warner. I left Stewart Warner and took a summer off and then I went back to work. You see, Chicago was a very large city and also was at that time practically the center of the radio industry. And there were a lot of different radio companies. It wasn’t going to be difficult to find another job if I couldn't get one back at Stewart Warner.

Sullivan

And so you took a summer off precisely to erect this antenna?

Reber

Exactly. I was much younger then and I used to get up early and work from seven in the morning till seven at night. I don't do that anymore.

Sullivan

Well, like you say, it's very good that you wrote this down. You have all the details about people helping you to build it. Well here it is, "The entire job was completed in four months from June to September '37." And you talk about the local inhabitants were worried that the machine was collecting water and controlling the weather and so forth.

Reber

There were all kinds of unintelligent speculation, a lot of different kinds of things. I don't remember what they all were. Those were some of them.

Sullivan

No matter what you said, I suppose that they wouldn't believe you.

Reber

Yes. I don't know if I mentioned in there but people used to ring the doorbell and introduce themselves or maybe not even bother to introduce themselves, and say that they were passing through and they would like to know what that thing next door was.

Sullivan

You mention that pilots used to go out of their way to fly over this thing.

Reber

Oh, yes. Probably from the air it was a curiosity too. They'd circle around, and around, and around it looking at it.

Sullivan

But I suppose that the neighbors more or less just dismissed you as the local eccentric that was building this thing in his back yard. Or is that being unfair?

Reber

Oh, yes, I don't know, if they were particularly interested. I was just one of the local boys there, you know and I was a radio amateur, and well, I was not feeble minded, but sort of eccentric.

Sullivan

A radio amateur gone amuck.

Reber

That's right. I don't recall that I ever had any particular encounters with them good or bad, that is they didn't attempt to interfere with me nor did they attempt to assist me.

Sullivan

Except you got people to help you with certain critical stages where you needed labor and these are just friends, I guess.

Reber

That's right.

Sullivan

Also, another amazing thing to me is the fact that you had a hole there so you could have had a Gregorian focus if you'd wanted to.

Reber

Yes.

Sullivan

Did that idea of this come from optical work?

Reber

That's all. I don't know why I put that down here [Sullivan: in the article] but I thought all right if this thing is being built it better be built so there's not an obstruction in the middle, just in case I wanted to put my electronic apparatus at the bottom of this thing and put on a secondary, just in case. You see it wasn't feasible at the later lower frequencies but at those high frequencies, around 3000 megacycles, it would go through a 2 foot hole. Well, as an engineer you design things slightly over, i.e., so they have capabilities somewhat beyond what the demands are going to be, just in case the demands are slightly underestimated. It's just conservatism.

Sullivan

So that's what you were doing?

Reber

That's all. It was never used.

Sullivan

And now the antenna, as you say, well, first it went to Sterling, Virginia when you went to NBS. Now, was there any research done with it there? This is getting ahead of the story a little bit.

Reber

Not really. I went to NBS because there wasn't anything else offering really, I had some misgivings about it at the time as I couldn't quite understand what the National Bureau of Standards had to do with radio astronomy. After I'd been there for a while it became apparent that I was to be part of one of the internal empires, you might say. And the justification for my existence was that I was supposed to make observations of the radio waves from the Sun to be used as an index of solar activity. The solar activity would then be used to predict the conditions of the ionosphere which then could be used for predicting communications circuit performance, pretty far-fetched. But in any case, that was the justification for my existence.

Sullivan

And as part of the deal when you went there they said you could bring your telescope along and you'll use that?

Reber

That's right.

Sullivan

And what did it ever do in Sterling, Virginia?

Reber

While I was at the Bureau of Standards it didn't do anything. After I left it was used by two people whom I've since forgotten. But anyhow, it must have been 1952 by this time, these fellows had my dish set up there in Sterling, Virginia, and they did a Moon echo experiment with a transmitter at Collins [Sullian: Company] Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And that got published somewhere, I think in the Proceedings of the IRE. And they sent some signals up, 500 megacycles or 300 megacycles, or something like that at Collins and used my dish to pick it up from the Moon. And they decided that with this particular set of physical parameters that the circuit was suitable for hand telegraphy. And they encountered severe fading. Apparently the Moon liberates and this liberation was enough to cause some multiple scattering points to add and subtract. I don't recall the fading rate, but it was on the order of several fades per minute. And as far as I know that's all that amounted from it.

Sullivan

And when was it finally transferred to NRAO?

Reber

Well, I left there when they decided they were going to move everything to Boulder, Colorado. A lot of other people left. And they hired some contractor to tear everything down and lug it out there to Boulder, Colorado. So it was lugged out there.

Sullivan

Oh, it went to Colorado, too.

Reber

Oh yeah. It was taken apart along with a lot of other stuff and lugged out to Boulder, Colorado. And at that point some of my equipment disappeared under circumstances very similar to how Jansky's charts disappeared. There were people in one place issuing orders without any idea of what the consequences were going to be, and other people carrying them out without any idea of what they were doing. In any case, the dish was dismantled and taken out there. Nothing was ever done with it. All the pieces apparently lay in a big heap for several years. I don't know when they went out there, maybe 1954, something like that. Well, in the meantime NSF got started and then they developed NRAO. And they finally got some land out at Green Bank about 1958. And Dick Emberson or Berkner or somebody thought that it would be a good idea if they could get my dish put back together again. So they found out the remains were at Boulder, Colorado. And by that time I had finished some of my work in Tasmania, so I agreed to come back to Green Bank and help them put the thing together. So I did. And in the meantime they had lugged everything from Boulder, Colorado to Green Bank, West Virginia. But it had laid out there too long. As I mentioned, when it was taken apart in 1947 it was just as good as when it was put together. But after the stuff had laid out in the open for 10 years or so it wasn't. And all we were able to salvage out of it was the metal pieces, which all had to be sand-blasted and cleaned up. So all the metal pieces that are at Green Bank are original. But the wood pieces were hopeless. They were done for. But I fortunately had all my drawings. So I went back to Wheaton and got my drawings and they bought new wood and this time we impregnated them with this copper compound which is used in park benches to prevent rot or reduce rot. And all the wood, pieces were refabricated. And they had succeeded in getting oh, maybe a half of the sheet metal for the dish. And the other half had departed, nobody knows where. People had helped themselves. And the remaining half in existence was in bad order. A lot of it had been heavily creased and dented and rusted, torn. So there didn't seem any point to try and use that old stuff. And we bought all new skin for the dish, but this time we bought it out of aluminum instead of galvanized iron. But it was all fabricated to the same design.

Sullivan

So now you're saying, is there any of the metal...

Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5


Modified on Tuesday, 23-Dec-2014 14:30:20 EST by Ellen Bouton, Archivist (Questions or feedback)