[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 2 | Part 3 | Part 5


Sullivan

This is continuing with Grote Reber on 25 October ’75.

Reber

During this period the Model-T's were finding their way onto the junk heap. And so that was a very abundant source of this kind of stuff. But if you went out to do it today, you couldn't find them because they all long since gone to melt.

Sullivan

And this was the declination drive essentially?

Reber

That's right.

Sullivan

And was it a hand-cranked sort of arrangement that you had?

Reber

There’s the crank [Sullivan: in Figure 3].

Sullivan

Right.

Reber

Doesn't show very well, but there's the handle of the crank and there's the shaft of the crank and then it bends over and slips on there and it’s a spline that allows the crank to be taken off so the kids can't crank it. We were only a couple of blocks from the school and the kids used to come in the afternoon and play on this thing, you know, like they play on a playground.

Sullivan

I love that point in one of these articles where you got a very southern measurement because the dish got stuck there in a snow storm and so you just took advantage of it.

Reber

That's right.

Sullivan

How did you get the dish unstuck?

Reber

I got a fellow at the local garage, a blacksmith that did some of this blacksmithing for me. Out in that small town they had a fellow who was sort of a general mechanic and he represented an automobile dealership and he did blacksmithing and this, that and the other thing. He had a steam engine that drove a lathe and things. And he was the fellow that helped me or in some cases did a lot of the mechanical work on all this metal. See, we bought the metal in Chicago from Steel Sales, and brought it out by truck and then sawed it up and drilled and bent it at his place, this blacksmith's. So I got this blacksmith to come there as soon as the weather got good enough in a few days, and we jacked this thing back up and put it back on the track. That's all.

Sullivan

I thought that was real ingenuity to take advantage of that. Let's see, page 376 [Sullivan: Proceedings of the IRE]. You said that, "Unfortunately the present method of scanning along declination lines makes it quite difficult to obtain good data beyond dec = + 45°." Why was that?

Reber

It's because just the Earth is going slowly. That's all.

Sullivan

But in fact you get more sensitivity because you get more integration time per beam.

Reber

Oh, I see what you mean.

Sullivan

I don't see why that makes it more difficult.

Reber

Well maybe that's a bad statement. Actually I can't say that it's true, because the data seems to be just as good up there, doesn't it?

Sullivan

Right. I thought it might be something to do with that when the dish got tilted past the zenith that you ran into problems of some sort.

Reber

No. I think it's just that since the Earth is turning so slow the records get spread all out.

Sullivan

Right, then the drift. So then actually the integration time is too long, really?

Reber

Well, if this is your baseline like that, it spreads everything way out and so it becomes more difficult to get these things off, get the ordinates. I think that's it.

Sullivan

That probably it, indeed. And then this is the article where you say that you'd like to move out in the desert somewhere far away from manmade disturbances.

Reber

This is 1942?

Sullivan

Right. I guess the question is, why didn't you move out there?

Reber

Well, the War came on in '41, probably about the time or a little after the time this was written. When did this appear?

Sullivan

This was received in August '41 [Sullivan: published in August ’42].

Reber

Let's see, the War hadn't begun yet, at least for us. Damn, it took them a year to get that thing into print.

Sullivan

That was a revised manuscript in May '42, so there was some big delay there.

Reber

Yes.

Sullivan

Was it a referee sort of thing?

Reber

Oh, probably just the War.

Sullivan

Well, why did you have to revise it though?

Reber

Oh, I don't know. I don't even know if it was revised, we'd have to look. I think I've probably got all the revision. I've saved most of that stuff.

Sullivan

I'd really like to go through that sometime with you.

Reber

Well, in any case, see, by this time it was evident that some really good results could be had and I was getting them slowly, and it was also evident that the location I had there was far from optimum with all these manmade difficulties. And it would be a good idea if we had an arrangement where we could look in some direction other than along the meridian, which wasn’t possible there because of the hemmed-in circumstances. And so it seemed as though it would be a good idea to get out of there and get to some place farther away. And to do that, if we're going to do that, then it seemed to be best if I fixed the equipment up with adjustment in azimuth as well as in altitude. By this time I had been working for some time and I had more resources at my command. So I bought some more iron and made up another design, and this blacksmith made up the turntable. This must have been 1941. The turntable was completely assembled in this blacksmith's shop. And then it was all taken apart and stored in the garage at home, because about that time, or a little prior to that, Yerkes Observatory had acquired McDonald Observatory in Texas. I'd been going back and forth to Yerkes from time to time on various subjects and they had a lot of land down there and it seemed as though maybe it would be a good idea if we could get the resources and the time to move the whole shebang down there to MacDonald, because it would be a lower latitude and the climate would be not only better, but we wouldn't have near so much electrical disturbances. And it was near the Observatory itself. If we had some electric disturbances they would probably be coming from the Observatory itself and we'd be able to control them. Most electrical disturbances can be quieted down if you can find out where they are and get control over them. This was impossible where I was there [Sullivan: Wheaton]. So I had made some sort of cursory arrangements with Struve but the War came on and all this stuff stood in storage, couldn't do anything until after the War was over.

Sullivan

So you might really have set up an observatory down there if it hadn't been for the War?

Reber

Well, that was the idea. If the War hadn't come on and we got involved in that mess, I think I could have moved everything down there. And that would have been the logical thing to do. In fact, that would have been a lot better thing to do than me going to the Bureau of Standards which turned out to be pretty much of a mistake. But there wasn't anything offering at that time. There was no National Science Foundation; there were no other resources available. And we might have gotten some money out of who knows, Carnegie or Rockefeller or I don't know. But that's all water over the dam. It was one of those "if" things.

Sullivan

Now, being able to move in azimuth, were you thinking of actually tracking a source?

Reber

Well, no. See, this was 1941, before I discovered the radio waves from the Sun, much less the transients. So there wasn't any incentive that way. But what I was thinking of was trying to speed up this business of taking the data because you wouldn't need near as much receiver stability. In other words revert back to something like Jansky had where we made sweeps around the horizon. And then maybe make another sweep at a higher elevation angle. In other words, instead of taking a year to get a survey we could do the whole thing in a month or less!

Sullivan

So the Earth was really giving you too slow a data rate and you wanted to speed it up.

Reber

That's right. It really was. You could only get one sweep out in a night and if you had bad luck, you had interference or equipment difficulty, that was shot and you had to wait until the next night or a couple of nights later. It was a very slow and laborious thing, especially when you got north of +45°. The polar region beyond Cassiopeia was practically non-existent, that is, the Earth just didn’t turn up there. The sky didn't turn. But if you had an azimuth sweep, that could all be taken care of.

Sullivan

Sure.

Reber

So there was a lot of good possibilities. Well, I've had a lot of good results. You can't expect to hit the nail every time.

Sullivan

Sure, you can't win them all. You mention interference and the automobile ignitions were the worst thing by far, it appears from your traces. Were there other things that bothered you in the neighborhood that you would have liked to have eliminated?

Reber

Well, the main thing was automobiles, but there were some other things. There were some people there that had sparking oil burners. These things would come on at night occasionally, especially in the wintertime. They usually didn't last long because if they were so bad as that, they most likely would fail within a few nights completely and then they'd have to get them fixed. In the daytime there were other kinds of disturbances in the form of women running cake mixers and this kind of thing. And a lot of my records show my electric razor, which I still use.

Sullivan

Really, the same one?

Reber

Oh, yes. It's an old Schick I've had for umpteen years.

Sullivan

Amazing.

Reber

So aside from the automobiles there wasn't a great amount, a few.

Sullivan

You didn't make any efforts to hunt them down or actually put a shield over your neighbor's furnace or anything like that?

Reber

Oh, no. It didn't seem warranted. I didn't have the time or the effort or the incentive. You just put up with them. We did get a few interferences from mobile transmitters on automobiles. At that time most of that mobile stuff was around 30 megacycles or so.

Sullivan

You mean taxi-cabs, that sort of thing?

Reber

Yes, and the police had some. I think it was mainly the police and taxi-cabs. But I didn't get it unless they were pretty close, within a couple of blocks. And what it was harmonic radiation. But that wasn't often enough to be objectionable.

Sullivan

Ok, moving on to your '44 [Sullivan: ApJ] paper, a couple of questions. You had an idea of the Milky Way having structure now and you talk about the various peaks along the Milky Way. And you make the statement that, "The intensity is roughly indicative of the amount of material between us and the edge of the Milky Way. On this basis the various maxima point to the directions of projections from the Milky Way. These projections may be similar to the arms often photographed in other spiral nebulae."

Reber

That was just a guess and a bad one.

Sullivan

Well, no but I'm wondering was your picture that we were somewhat outside of our own Milky Way?

Reber

Probably.

Sullivan

And that there was sort of a disk that we were just outside and that this disk had projections on it?

Reber

Probably.

Sullivan

Ok. Well, that's not a bad guess at all.

Reber

But that was, you see, on the basis that this stuff was due to free-free transition. And it now turns out that the bright spots had nothing to do with free-free transition.

Sullivan

Right, but nevertheless Mills, of course, 10 years later showed that the continuum radiation peaks along spiral arms, the synchrotron radiation as we now call it, so that you can see spiral structure in the continuum, so it's not way off base at all. The only thing that one would say now is that we think ourselves as being inside the Milky Way. That these arms are all around us rather than that we're sort of just outside of it.

Reber

Well, you know here if you look out there in the direction of Perseus, the Milky Way sort of disappears into the background and it's damn difficult to find out just where the Milky Way is towards Perseus.

Sullivan

Yes, it's certainly much weaker than it is towards the center of course.

Reber

So we must be pretty near the edge.

Sullivan

Well, let's put it this way, we're much more near the edge optically than we are in the radio.

Reber

Oh, yes.

Sullivan

Because there's much more hydrogen outside of us relative to the center than there is light and likewise with the radio continuum, I think. I like these plots that you show here, this one taken on Christmas '43, this one is New Year's Day '44, whenever you weren't working, all of these others are taken on Sundays. Ok, now you're trying to explain the discrepancy that the Sun is a strong source but that, "This source must be greatly discounted when explaining the origin of cosmic static. If it were the source," meaning that if the cosmic static came from all the stars, I guess, "If the Milky Way were made of average stars like the Sun, very large area in Sagittarius would have a visible intensity equal to that of the Sun." That would be if you had no dark matter, of course. "Since this is not the case, some other cause must be found to make up the difference of 20 or 30 magnitudes." I'm wondering: is what you mean there that the ratio of optical to radio in the Milky Way is 20 to 30 magnitudes different than the ratio of optical to radio for the Sun? Is that what you mean?

Reber

It's the general idea.

Sullivan

Yes, and that's just about right. I'm making a footnote here: "Reber is saying here that the ratio of radio to optical intensity from the Milky Way is about 1010 times that same ratio for the Sun."

Reber

[Affirmative].

Sullivan

Ok, I just wasn't sure I had that right. Ok, that's about it for this paper, specific questions. Now the 1948 Proceedings of the IRE paper, I don't think I had any specific things there. Now, this review that you wrote with Jesse Greenstein for Observatory [Sullivan: 1947], this is really the first thorough review of radio astronomy and I was just wondering how this came about.

Reber

When was this?

Sullivan

In '47 it was published.

Reber

February '47, I was still in Illinois.

Sullivan

It was probably written in '46.

Reber

Well, I don't know how it came about. I'd had contacts off and on over the years with the people at Yerkes and whether he or I or both of us or somebody else pushed us onto it, I don't know. But it seemed as though that now that the War was over and we had some time to collect our wits and had access to a considerable amount of information, it would be worthwhile to put it together.

Sullivan

Well, it's interesting because this is the first time that an optical and a radio astronomer have gotten together. In other words, it's the first time that radio astronomy is sort of becoming accepted, at least by some optical astronomers. Certainly that there was still a lot of prejudice.

Reber

I didn't realize this. Is this the first time that an optical and radio astronomer had written a joint paper?

Sullivan

Oh, yes.

Reber

Oh, it is?

Sullivan

Yes.

Reber

Remarkable.

Sullivan

And it's also the first time- no, that's not true, because there were your papers in Astrophysical Journal. But this was in Observatory which is, of course, an astronomy journal.

Reber

And now you are going to ask me why we sent it to this bunch, and why we didn't patronize home industry.

Sullivan

Oh, I don't know. I'm not going to ask you...

Reber

That I don't know either.

Sullivan

I wasn't going to ask you that. But you do in here, you talk a little bit about the errors in your measurements, about how reliable they are: "It's improbable that errors as large as a factor of 10 exist, but errors of a factor of 2 are not excluded." I was wondering why didn't you put some similar sort of discussions in the original papers?

Reber

Probably because at that time I hadn't given it any great thought. By this time Greenstein was probably asking me the questions about how reliable were these things.

Sullivan

Right, trying to pin you down.

Reber

And I was trying to give him some, you know, rough-cut idea of what things were.

Sullivan

Ok, now if we just take a look at your engineering articles, here's one in '47 on, "Antenna Focal Devices for Parabolic Mirrors." How does this relate now to what was used in the radio astronomy experiments?

Reber

Well, I needed a broadband antenna and so this was an attempt to find out the impedance parameters of various broadband designs.

Sullivan

Now was this applicable to all of the different frequencies you used?

Reber

Well, this was particularly a development on the feed for 480 megacycles.

Sullivan

On the last one, yes. That's what I thought. And now this '44 article on, "Reflector Efficiency," this was the 160 MHz thing primarily, right?

Reber

[Affirmative].

Sullivan

And how to illuminate the dish and so forth.

Reber

I'd forgotten about this. This was an elaborate thing, wasn't it?

Sullivan

Oh, you had all the equations that are columns long in this paper. And then here's the actual illumination curve that you had and then, "Electromagnetic Horns," in 1939.

Reber

This is some of that microwave stuff.

Sullivan

Did you ever use such horns on your antenna?

Reber

Yes. At 3300 megacycles I used a horn similar to this.

Sullivan

Right, and what about 910, also?

Reber

No, at 910 [Sullivan: MHz] I just used a cylinder. In other words, if you wanted to get the maximum directivity out of the horn on a given aperture and length, you don't do this, and you don't do that, but you build it like that.

Sullivan

Right and you found this out experimentally, basically?

Reber

Yes.

Sullivan

So this was not used for the 480 MHz either, just the 3300?

Reber

That's all. It was sort of an engineering exercise, really. I did have a large horn built by Alcoa for use, I think, 910 megacycles but it was never used because I couldn't get anything. And the idea was to improve the aperture efficiency by cutting down the side lobes. You'd get a bigger opening at the orifice of the horn. But it was never used and it got demolished at the Bureau of Standards and that was the last I ever saw of it.

Sullivan

Yes, I thought that in your early radio astronomy article that you mentioned that you used a horn at 480 MHz.

Reber

No, if I did it was a mistake.

Sullivan

Well, now I'm probably remembering wrong. Let's see if I can find that. No, I don't see it now. I must be remembering wrong, ok.

Reber

It was a fairly large horn. It must have been about 6 feet long and about 2 feet or so in the aperture.

Sullivan

Oh, wow.

Reber

And the idea was to put a small drum at the backend of the horn. 2 feet on the aperture at 900 megacycles, about 30 cm, would give a couple of wavelengths across the aperture which would improve the aperture efficiency.

Sullivan

Right, like you were just showing me here, yes. Here's another article in Communications on, "Electric Resonance Chambers," and this is what you used at both 910 and 160?

Reber

And the original observations at 162. You can tell by looking at the pictures because the early pictures of the big drum show- here, see, small opening. And the antenna is back in here. Then when I got the broadband amplifier, I broad-banned it out by taking this iris off and putting cones in there instead of a wire. Well, that drum and the cones all disappeared.

Sullivan

Now this was a review article in Radio News in 1948.

Reber

The one where I had projections sticking out in the direction of Cassiopeia.

Sullivan

I'm going to reproduce this figure because I think what you were trying to do here was to make the radiation from the Galaxy into an antenna pattern that engineers could sort of understand.

Reber

Apparently so, but that was sure way off, that one.

Sullivan

Well, it a valid way to show the data. It's sort of interesting.

Reber

But you notice under good circumstances it was a darn good signal-to-noise ratio.

Sullivan

Oh, yeah. I mean, there's no doubt, even here there's no doubt that on the lower envelope that you got a good signal there. You wrote this letter to Nature in November '46 and this was after you first picked up solar flares, right?

Reber

[Affirmative]

Sullivan

But now at this time- were you aware of the other solar observations by this time because you did write to Nature? Well, you did give references to the two of them here.

Reber

To Pawsey and Hey, obviously I was aware of them.

Sullivan

Right. Do you remember if that was only after you made the observations and then began to look through the literature?

Reber

I haven’t the faintest idea.

Sullivan

And then here's another short little thing in the Proceedings of the IRE in '47.

Reber

Well, this was after I went to NBS, but it was still all on the Wheaton data. This was all taken at Wheaton. And this is just to show the difference in how the background fluctuates, over very large amounts from day to day, a big difference than a few years previously when I was on 160 megacycles.

Sullivan

Where is Sterling, actually?

Reber

It's about 20 miles or so airline from Washington, across the river over into the back country of Virginia.

Sullivan

Directly west?

Reber

Directly west. It's remarkable how quickly you can get into the deep south when you get over into Virginia.

Sullivan

Yes, I used to live there. I went to the University of Maryland as a graduate student. You’ve more or less said why you wanted to leave Wheaton and that the only opportunity you could to find to continue this sort of research was at NBS.

Reber

That's right.

Sullivan

And you've already commented that your hope was to bring your antenna with you and continue on this same sort of line, but they had other ideas. But can you just sort of summarize what you did do in the couple of years you were at NBS?

Reber

When I got there, it was evident that they weren't interested in radio astronomy. What they were interested in was justifying their own and my existence, which could be done in this roundabout way on ionospheric predictions. And so the program really consisted of doing solar radio observations, particularly looking for the transients and measuring them and their duration and that kind of stuff. And so about that time, this is 1947, they'd lugged in a bunch of stuff from Europe, mainly German stuff. And this was done by the Signal Corps, with the idea of assessing it for its military capabilities. And it was going to be turned into scrap and so we found out about this and we got three of these Würzburg dishes from Red Bank, New Jersey. And they were taken down and I modified them somewhat and tipped them up so that instead of being alt-azimuth mounted, they were polar mounted. And then we built some more electronics equipment and started making routine observations of solar radio waves at several frequencies, I think, 53, 160, and 480 megacycles, using my electronic gear, at least to begin with, although that was later to change. This was done as a routine thing and we collected vast amounts of this information. I don't know what it was ever used for, but we did it.

Sullivan

Well, the only publication is this one in Science in '51 in which you talked about some of the bursts, motion in the solar atmosphere you call it.

Reber

Yeah.

Sullivan

And that's, I think, the only real publication I found on this. Were there internal NBS things, do you know?

Reber

Not much, really. They weren't really interested in this. It was just one of those things they did because they were doing it.

Sullivan

But during this time though, you did go up with Hagen and Haddock...

Reber

That's right.

Sullivan

To Alaska. Maybe you can tell me about that business.

Reber

Well, Hagen's idea was to get some information about the radio corona of the Sun using the Moon to eclipse part of it. This was a good idea and it had more relevance at microwave frequencies that NRL were observing at than at the frequencies we had available. However, they put some equipment at our disposal, so Beck and I went up there and made some observations. And they're shown here, they don't tell you a great deal other than what you already know, that is, the solar corona gets larger as the frequency gets lower and the Moon obscures less and less of it, and when you get down to the shortest wavelength they operated at, 3 cm, the corona is pretty much like the optical corona in size.

Sullivan

Is this Beck the same one as at the Bell Labs?

Reber

This is another Beck. The Bell Labs Beck is A. C. Beck. This is Emanuel A. Beck, a generation different.

Sullivan

How do you view that early NRL effort? I've talked to Mayer and I haven't talked to either Hagen or Haddock yet.

Reber

How do I view it?

Sullivan

Yes, I mean, were you sort of always working closely in contact with each other?

Reber

Oh, more or less. We knew each other and I went over and saw their stuff and they'd come over and see our stuff but we weren't competing; we weren't even doing similar things.

Sullivan

Because you had such different frequencies, basically?

Reber

Yes. I never did find out why they were doing it, that is, they seemed to even have more slender strings to sustain them than we had.

Sullivan

That's always been a problem. It still is today at NRL.

Reber

It seemed to be more an exercise in microwave technology than anything else. And the frequencies they chose made it pretty hopeless to do anything except solar work with that equipment.

Sullivan

And so the idea of you getting involved was mainly for the 65 cm point, I guess?

Reber

Well, see we had some low frequency equipment which they didn't have. And so by inviting us two to go along at 480 megacycles, it gave them 3, 10, 30, what was it?

Sullivan

3, 10 and 65 is plotted here.

Reber

3 cm, 10 cm, and 65 cm. They only had two, I guess. Oh, they had some optical equipment they took along, but it was useless.

Sullivan

No, here's a photocell here.

Reber

So there were three radio frequencies?

Sullivan

[Affirmative].

Reber

At these wavelengths, 3, 10 and 65 cm, and this is their optical equipment, doesn't it show it?

Sullivan

But now here they say 4 radiometers. Oh, 8.5 mm they had also.

Reber

Maybe it didn't work.

Sullivan

Apparently. I'm sure they say in here. "The rain prevented use of this camera and the 8 mm receiver." Not a very beautiful eclipse, eh? Well, let's see, there's a couple of early reviews that you did in Sky & Telescope and Scientific American. I don't think there is anything...

Reber

That Scientific American one, is that the one there?

Sullivan

Yes.

Reber

That's got my name on it but I didn't write it. It doesn’t sound like me.

Sullivan

Oh, because their editor changed it so much, you mean? I've heard that from other people, they've said that about Scientific American too.

Reber

Scientific American takes the bull by the horns and writes its own articles.

Sullivan

Here's a AAAS meeting in Boston, a Symposium on Radio Astronomy.

Reber

That was a Christmastime one.

Sullivan

Right, in which you gave an address.

Reber

I think this was just a sort of synopsis thing, wasn't it?

Sullivan

Yes, it was sort of showing the history of radio astronomy.

Reber

Yes. I think that is probably under Bok's administration. Anyhow, Bok, I think, was one of the promoters of this.

Sullivan

He may well have been.

Reber

And the feeling was that radio astronomy hadn't been given a fair go, i.e., the scientific community at large was mostly unaware of even its existence. And that we should get out and put our best foot forward and get some generalized things to educate these ignoramuses and show that there was something more to science than nuclear physics.

Sullivan

So this was a publicity effort, basically?

Reber

That's what it amounted to. This kind of thing occurred several times.

Sullivan

Is this true, did you actually present this paper? It has it here that Kraus gave it in your absence.

Reber

What does it say?

Sullivan

But then it crossed out.

Reber

"Paper to be presented because of Dr. Reber's absence in Boston by..." I'm pretty sure I was there. I'm sure I was there.

Sullivan

Ok, well, someone had it crossed it out that wasn't me. So apparently that was to correct that. I forget where I got this thing. I do a lot of scrounging.

Reber

I'll tell you a good story on this business of ignorance. I'd gone to the Bureau of Standards, that was '47, and it was probably Spring of '48, and the American Physical Society was holding an annual meeting there, quite a big thing, several hundred people, maybe a couple of thousand. And the promoters at NBS thought NBS ought to get somebody there to put NBS on the program. And what could they find. So they put the button on me and said now, "You've got to go give a paper." I said, "All right, I'll tell them about solar radio waves because that's what we're doing here at NBS." And so they made all the necessary arrangements and got me on the program and so on. I didn't have to do any of that. And the program was printed and in due time I went down there. I didn't attend all the sessions. And I remember this was a very large hall. I don't remember which hall it was but there's two large structures, and one of them is [Sullivan: Department of] Agriculture, I think on the west side of the White House, or was it there? Anyhow, it was a large hall.

Sullivan

The Commerce Department? Because NBS is part of the Commerce Department.

Reber

Well, it doesn't make any difference. It may not have been either one of them. I've been to so many meetings I've forgotten which one it was. It was a very large hall and it must have been about 11:00 in the morning. The sessions had been going for some time. And I got there a little before the previous paper had been finished, five minutes or so. And the previous paper was about some obtuse nuclear physics thing like nuclear cross-sections, and the hall was just jammed with people standing around the back and in the aisle. And a lot of people were smoking pipes and it was a smoke-filled room. Finally, there were a couple of questions, but there wasn't much of any time so the Chairman closed the session and then there was an intermission, five minutes or so. When this speaker quit, practically everybody got up and went out. And they opened the doors and let some of the smoke out. So then I was the first one on the next half of the program, so I got up there and Rabi was chairman. Pretty soon a few people filed back in, but the hall was about a quarter filled. So it was very evident that what the program said was uninteresting to the large majority of the people. So, Rabi got up there and he introduced the speaker and he reads the program. He says, "Our next speaker will be Mr. Grote Reber of the National Bureau of Standards and his subject will be 'Solar Radio Waves'." And then he looks at it and he looks at me, then he looks at the program again and he says, "And Mr. Reber will tell us about solar radio waves and I hope that all right." Then he sits down. Well, it was pretty obvious that Rabi had never heard of solar radio waves and he hadn't even read the program. That was how far radio astronomy had infiltrated into the physics community.

Sullivan

That's a very good example, all right.

Reber

Well, anyhow I gave them a spiel on solar radio waves for 10 or 15 minutes and I guess it was all right. But it tickled me in a way that you think that Rabi would have at least read the program, but he didn't.

Sullivan

When he's the chairman of the session, right.

Reber

And he didn't have the faintest idea what solar radio waves were.

Sullivan

But then you've already told about Compton who was an example of one who did have an open mind.

Reber

Yes, he's very different, very different.

Sullivan

Right, but probably most physicists were more like Rabi.

Reber

Most of them were more like Rabi.

Sullivan

It was just something they were not particularly interested in. Ok, we were talking about your tenure at NBS and so you were measuring the Sun and I imagine you got tired of doing that after a while.

Reber

The reason I left there was, it was one of these political things. We've had some examples of that in Australia just recently. Colorado isn't poverty stricken in the sense that Mississippi is, but it doesn't have much to offer, that is, for instance in all this log-rolling, you got a bunch of guys from Illinois and Iowa who were log-rolling to get subsidies for their corn. And then there's the wheat boys out in Minnesota and the Dakotas and the cotton boys down in the Gulf. And these guys have all got their ax to grind to keep their subsidies and their special privilege functioning. So Colorado didn't have anything like that, that is, they might have a little silver, but nobody much cared anything about that. So the special privilege boys are looking to pick up votes. They want somebody to get behind them and help push for wheat, corn and cotton. And so when Colorado comes around and says now, "What do you offer me?" They haven't got much of anything to offer them, but they'll be glad to give them anything if Colorado will vote for wheat, corn, and cotton. So when it looked like some money was going to become available to build some new laboratories for the Bureau of Standards, then the log-rolling went into the direction of shoving this thing to Colorado. Not because there was any point in sending it out there, but simply because this was something Colorado could get. In other words, Senator Allot and his boys could go around and say, "Now, we want that thing, because if you don't give us that thing we won't vote for your corn, wheat and cotton." The corn, wheat and cotton boys couldn't give a damn less.

So, they decided that the whole thing was going be shoved out there, which it was. I got pretty tired of them at that point because this equipment we had, I had worked on it for several years and done my best to build it up and make it run. And it was old equipment. Some of that stuff, you know was pretty old. I looked at the production dates on those things. The dogma has it that the British invented radar. Well, maybe, but I'm not so damn sure on that, that is, there were 1938 dates on some of that Würzburg equipment. So, in any case, what they wanted to do was to have me pull everything down and lug it out to Colorado. And I couldn't see that. I wasn't dead-set against going out there, but if they got that much money let them buy some new stuff. Scrap all the old stuff and let's go out there and start over and do something new. But to haul all that stuff down, lug it out there, and set it all up again, that like digging ditches to put the dirt in from other ditches. So I just quit.

Sullivan

So what was your next move then?

Reber

I got a subsidy from this Research Corporation. I wanted to try the sea interferometer experiments that Bolton had been doing in Australia.

Sullivan

What year is this now?

Reber

1951.

Sullivan

And you’ve been supported by Research Corporation ever since, haven't you?

Reber

That's right. I looked around a lot. And I was rather impressed with what Bolton had been doing out there in Sydney. And I thought this was a pretty good technique and so I hunted around for some place where you can see a source rising from the sea and setting into the sea. And this seemed like an opportunity so I thought all right, the future doesn't look very bright working for the Bureau of Standards. Why don't I give this a whirl for a few years and see how it goes. And so I went out there and worked in Hawaii for a while. It wasn't very successful. But anyhow, it was different.

Sullivan

What did you actually do in Hawaii?

Reber

Well, I found this volcano called Haleakala meaning in Hawaiian the home of the Sun or a place dedicated to the Sun. And there was an access road to the top, and that was one reason for choosing it. The other main reason for choosing it was from the top of that you could see a sea horizon off the east and around to the north. Well, the island of Hawaii was to the southeast, then you could see all the way around...

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