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


NATIONAL RADIO ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY ARCHIVES

Papers of Woodruff T. Sullivan III: Tapes Series

Interview with A. Melvin Skellett
By telephone from the University of Washington to his home in Sarasota, Florida
August 26, 1977
Interview Time: 28 minutes
Transcribed for Sullivan by Pamela M. Jernegan

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

Sullivan

Okay, this is talking with A. Melvin Skellett over the telephone from the University of Washington to his retirement home in Sarasota, Florida on 26 August 1977 and we’re going to be taking this through a pickup mic on the telephone. Okay, to start off with your connection with the [Karl] Jansky discovery, I noticed that in Jansky's 1933 paper, he does give an acknowledgement to you for the help that you gave. Could you please relate how you remember the development of trying to figure out what this third kind of static was, how that went?

Skellett

Well, here's the story on it. Jansky was, you know, an associate of mine at the Laboratory, and he built this rotating antenna. His assignment was to study static electricity, I mean static interference with radio, all of its aspects.

Sullivan

You knew him before.

Skellett

Oh, yes. We used to play bridge together and everything. We were very close friends. Well, at the same time, I was attending Princeton University, getting my doctorate degree in astronomy, see?

Sullivan

I see, what was your bachelor's degree in, can I ask?

Skellett

I had my bachelor's degree in, I'd specialized in physics and my minor was math.

Sullivan

What school was that?

Skellett

Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri.

Sullivan

I see. The connection between astronomy and radio engineering is not the usual one for that time. How is it that you had these two interests?

Skellett

Well, I helped make them, put them together.

Sullivan

That's very true.

Skellett

Anyway, we were studying. I was trying to get a degree, a Ph.D. in astronomy.

Sullivan

Who were the main professors you were working with?

Skellett

Henry Norris Russell and John Q. Stewart, these are all three professors in the Astronomy Department at Princeton. And the other one was named [Raymond Smith] Dugan.

Sullivan

Oh, yes.

Skellett

They wrote a book.

Sullivan

I know that textbook.

Skellett

Yes. Well, anyway, so I was at the time in the Bell Lab. I was in the radio end of the thing, see. We were studying radio transmission across the ocean because they were starting to put the short wave radio telephones. This was before they had any radio between New York and London. So it occurred to me that the meteors shooting up there might be a contributing factor to the noise. So we set up an experiment, and we had a radar. They didn't call it radar then, but it was the same thing.

Sullivan

They called it a pulse method, or something like that.

Skellett

And we would get out there, boy, it was cold, at two o'clock in the morning, and shoot these pulses up at the meteor, see. And I'd lay on my back and whenever we saw a meteor overhead, I'd holler to the fellow inside who was looking at the cathode ray tube, and he'd say if there was any connection. Well, there was.

Sullivan

This was, before we get to the meteors, can we just now talk about the Jansky thing. So how was it that you heard about Jansky having this data that he couldn't figure out?

Skellett

Well, Jansky kept taking this data. He'd get this little hump in his data that happened about every 24 hours. And he came to me and he said, "Hey, I think I've got something here. I think that I'm getting static from the Sun." And I said, "Gee, it looks like it all right." So a month or two later, he says, "Something's wrong. It's gotten out at of phase with the Sun." He said, "It's not the same place; it's sliding." And then, of course, immediately I thought maybe it's not solar time but sidereal time. Now if it's sidereal time, it means that it's fixed in space but not fixed where the Sun is. Do you follow this?

Sullivan

Right.

Skellett

So, I said, "Why don't you try to fit sidereal time to your data?" He said, "I don't know anything about sidereal time." So I went out to him and we sat down together and we calculated, and sure enough, the darn thing came out that it was sidereal time and it was an easy step then to find where this thing was in space, and it was in Sagittarius, you see.

Sullivan

Right. Okay, haw many months of data was accumulated before you made this connection with sidereal time?

Skellett

My guess is a whole year, but it could be six months. But he had enough data so we weren't just guessing.

Sullivan

It was quite clear?

Skellett

Yes.

Sullivan

And so you found that it was in the constellation of Sagittarius and what did that mean to you at that time?

Skellett

Well, you see, Sagittarius is pretty close to the middle of our Galaxy, and we just thought it was coming from all the stars in the galaxy.

Sullivan

Right. The middle of the galaxy as determined from [Harlow] Shapley's globular cluster work?

Skellett

Yes, I guess so. There's a lot of ways of finding out where the middle of the Milky Way is.

Sullivan

But I was wondering, what was the main method then that you were relying on?

Skellett

Gee, I don't remember. All I remember was that, yes, mostly Shapley's work, I think. This is a lot of years back, you know. It's hard to remember all the details.

Sullivan

Right. Okay, now, one question to ask you is that in 1935 Jansky published another paper in which he looked back at those records he took in 1932 and he noticed that it wasn't just a single strong signal, but in fact, the entire plane of the Milky Way was giving emission. Do you have any ideas why you didn't catch that at first?

Skellett

I tell you, we had very little data to go on at first. He had just this one little hump in the records, see, and it happened every twenty-four hours roughly, not exactly. And we were just feeling our way along. Later then, he got to studying the thing and he got more data...

Sullivan

Well, no, this was the same data.

Skellett

It was?

Sullivan

Well, he never took any more data, which brings me to another question while I think of it. Let me go back now. This is the same data, you can see the main peak of the galactic center, but then there are secondary peaks every time the antenna goes around, which corresponds to the Milky Way plane.

Skellett

Yes.

Sullivan

Do you have any idea why you didn't try well, what you would do today is make a contour map of the sky, more or less.

Skellett

Well, to tell you the honest truth, I don't remember the answer to that one.

Sullivan

Okay. That's what I want to have is the honest truth. But okay, another question is if you're familiar with why Karl Jansky did not follow up his original measurements?

Skellett

Everybody asks me that question. And to the best of my knowledge, here's the reason. Karl did this work and he published it and it created a little bit of a stir, but nobody really was talking about, "Gee, we've opened up a whole new field of investigation, radio astronomy." They didn't think like that. So after he had taken all the data he could with that rotating antenna, he didn't know where to go from there, you see. And it was at the bottom of the Depression, and money for projects in the Bell Laboratories wasn't too easy to get anyway. So with the consent of everybody, and I'm pretty sure I can say rightly that Karl himself thought it was all right, that we drop the thing there, that he'd found out this stuff and published it, and what else could you do? You see, nobody dreamed that you could build a dish as big as the one at Arecibo or anything like that. So there wasn’t any real acrimonious thing going on between Karl and the...

Sullivan

And [Harald T.] Friis?

Skellett

And Friis and the whole bunch, you know. Everything was in nice good faith and then later on, when the whole thing broke open, then they go back and they ask questions, "Why didn't Bell Labs push him into doing more stuff?" Oh, all kinds of things like that. But that's all...

Sullivan

That's all hindsight.

Skellett

That's right.

Sullivan

Were there other people asking these questions besides this fellow [John E.] Pfeiffer that wrote this book in the ‘50s?

Skellett

No, no. There was very little interest in it. Believe me, I remember talking to my colleagues and professors at Princeton, because I was going there. And they said, "Gee, that's interesting. You mean there’s radio stuff coming from the stars?" I said, "Well, that's what it looks like." "Very interesting," and that's all they had to say about it. They didn't see any use for it or any reason to investigate or follow it any further. Everybody thought "Well, Karl did a nice job there, he got every bit of data he could get out of that big rotating antenna," and it was pretty big, you know.

Sullivan

Right.

Skellett

So everybody kind of threw up their hands and, "Nice job, where do you go from here?" No place to go.

Sullivan

The astronomers did believe the data.

Skellett

Oh, well, anything from the Bell Labs they had to believe, you know. The reputation of the Bell Labs was behind this thing.

Sullivan

But there was no one at Princeton that was interested in trying to work out the theory of what might be causing this emission?

Skellett

No, no one.

Sullivan

And did you make some efforts to try to get people interested?

Skellett

No. No, we didn't try to get publicity on it at all. We just thought we had made a very nice thing, published a paper, and then you go on to the next thing.

Sullivan

Do you remember, did either you or Jansky ever give a talk at Princeton on this?

Skellett

I think Jansky gave some talks. I don't remember either of us talking at Princeton. No, the only thing I remember at Princeton was the informal discussion group. They were interested in what we were doing, but just kind of academically, you know.

Sullivan

And do you think it was just that it was so far removed from their own type of astronomy that they didn't know what to do with it?

Skellett

You hit the nail right on the head. That's exactly right. It was so far from the way they thought of astronomy that, you know, there was no real interest. If somebody had been fooling around with radio waves and even my paper on the meteors, I think that, no that was later. But anyway, they were interested in that, but I never did any more work on it. And the thing was just published, and I got my degree, and that was the whole thing.

Sullivan

Okay, we'll get to the meteors very shortly. A couple of other questions about the Jansky thing. What ideas did you have about the possible origin of this emission? Did you think it was coming from the integrated effect of stars or did you think it was coming from the interstellar medium?

Skellett

We didn't have the vaguest idea. We thought it must be coming from stars but that's just because that's what we knew were out there. We didn't try to speculate as to how it arose.

Sullivan

But then, of course, the question is: if it's coming from the stars, why don't you see it from the Sun?

Skellett

Well, they did later, you know.

Sullivan

Right, but I'm talking about your thinking in the 1930s.

Skellett

No, we didn't. All we knew was that the Sun's a great big hot body; there's an enormous amount of ionization which means that the surface of the Sun is an electric conductor and why wouldn't you get some radio from there?

Sullivan

But no one at that time thought about just pointing an antenna at the Sun?

Skellett

I don't think so. I don't recall that anybody did. It was [George] Southworth, wasn't it, that picked that up and got all the data on it?

Sullivan

During World War II, right.

Skellett

And that was quite a bit later, wasn't it?

Sullivan

That was during the war, yes.

Skellett

Right. And as far as I know that was the first time anybody ever got any radio waves from the Sun. [Sullivan: Actually [James] Hey (1942) a bit earlier]

Sullivan

But I'm just puzzled why somebody didn't try this around 1930.

Skellett

Well, we didn't, that's all I can say.

Sullivan

Okay.

Skellett

But I tell you, you almost have to put yourself back into the thinking of those times to really understand this thing, because, golly, if something like this happened today with all our techniques and everything, now everybody would go to town on it, see?

Sullivan

But what was really different in that time, would you say?

Skellett

Well, what was different was that radio as a transmitting medium hadn't really been developed anywhere near like it is today. We didn't have any microwaves in those days, and it was very early in the game, I guess that's all I can say. Although I have to tell you as I've already said, it was a long time ago and it's hard to remember everything.

Sullivan

Okay. I want to talk about the meteor ionization stuff now, but just let me check to make sure this recording is coming out okay. So I'll be back in about thirty seconds. Okay, it seems to be working. If you can remember to speak as loud as possible, that will help.

Skellett

Okay.

Sullivan

Now about the meteor ionization, you say that was basically your idea that this might be a cause of ionization in the E layer, I believe.

Skellett

That's right.

Sullivan

And so, I guess you just worked out the numbers and that was the paper you published in 1932, which very interestingly directly follows Jansky's first paper.

Skellett

Oh, yes.

Sullivan

I don't know if you remember that.

Skellett

No, but I know we were working on things at about the same time.

Sullivan

Was there any design in trying to have those two together, since they both dealt with a bit of astronomy?

Skellett

No, no. I'm pretty sure there wasn't at all. He was working quite independently of me, and I was working quite independently of him.

Sullivan

I see.

Skellett

In fact, we weren't in the same group, although the same basic area in the laboratory.

Sullivan

You were working at the Deal Laboratory?

Skellett

That's right. And he was working at Homdel.

Sullivan

And also, you did not know of any other work along the lines of calculating the radio effects of meteors?

Skellett

No. I'm trying to remember, there was a fellow in Japan.

Sullivan

That's right. Naka... [WS: Nagaoka]

Skellett

Nagasoki?

Sullivan

Something like that. Right.

Skellett

But I think that his conclusion was that when a meteor goes through the atmosphere, what it leaves is just the opposite of mine. It would leave dust and the dust would be an insulator. Is that right?

Sullivan

Well, that's correct.

Skellett

So that that's the only other thing that I know of where anybody even remotely connected radio waves and meteor trails, see.

Sullivan

Right. Do you remember at all how this idea came to you?

Skellett

No, except that, you see that I was studying astronomy and I would go out and look at meteor showers just because I was very much interested in it.

Sullivan

Right.

Skellett

And also, I was working in the radio group at the Bell Laboratories, and so it was almost logical that I would wonder if the thing didn't, you know, if there wasn't a connection.

Sullivan

I see.

Skellett

Yes.

Sullivan

I'm still curious as to, the average graduate student at Princeton in astronomy would not be working at Bell Labs. I'm just curious as to how you came to be doing both of those things?

Skellett

Well, that is interesting. I got the job at Bell Labs before I went to Princeton, and I was working at Bell Laboratories and I wanted to get a doctorate degree. I only had a master's and a bachelor’s. So I went over there and I told them that I would like to be a candidate, see. And I remember the Dean saying, "Look, the requirements are that you have to live at Princeton if you're going to get a doctorate degree, at least a year's residence. So we'd have to pull the city limits of Princeton all the way over to the coast in order to get you in." I said, "Well, it wouldn't hurt to do that once, would it?" So they did. I used to go back and forth three or four times a week and at nights; you know. I had a little car and I'd drive those forty miles.

Sullivan

So what years was it that you were a student at Princeton?

Skellett

I think it was ‘30, ‘31, and, wait a minute, I got the degree in 1933. So it must have been 1931, '32, and '33. I was there three years.

Sullivan

I see. And your thesis project was this meteor ionization?

Skellett

Yes, that's what I was working on at Bell Laboratories.

Sullivan

So I can look that thesis up in the Princeton Library, I guess.

Skellett

Oh, sure.

Sullivan

Who was your advisor?

Skellett

I'm trying to think, I think it was Stewart, but it could have been Dugan. It could have been any one of the three. I can't remember. It's in there, I'm pretty sure, if you find the thesis.

Sullivan

Right. Okay. Now looking more specifically at exactly what you did, I found a comment by [A. C. Bernard] Lovell who said the following: "The pre-World War II literature, had many proposals that meteors left an ionized trail which gave a detectable echo but there was no definite proof." Now would you agree with that?

Skellett

I didn't realize that so many people predicted it. I thought I was the only one. But he says there were, does he?

Sullivan

Well, there are some other papers in which other people talk about the possibility and so forth, but would you agree that there was no real definite proof until Lovell's work that meteors did cause ionization?

Skellett

Who's Lovell?

Sullivan

Lovell in England, Sir Bernard.

Skellett

Oh, yes. But was his stuff before mine?

Sullivan

Oh, no, no. This was after World War II.

Skellett

Yes, I'd agree to that, I think because that's the way I remembered, I couldn't remember his name, but I remembered it was in England.

Sullivan

But what I'm saying is that he says that before World War II, there was no definite proof that an ionized trail could be caused by a meteor.

Skellett

Well, he's saying that I'm wrong then.

Sullivan

Well, in a way. I'm saying do you feel that you definitely proved?

Skellett

Oh, yes. We certainly thought we had. We saw them, and we saw the thing on the cathode ray tube, you know, the pulse coming back, and by eye as soon as the meteor trail died out. We were sure we had positive proof.

Sullivan

I see. Well, you see, it looked like that to me, too, reading your papers. So let's talk about the individual papers. Well, the two of them together. There's your paper in 1932 in which you demonstrate the plausibility that meteors could cause sufficient ionization.

Skellett

That was mostly theoretical.

Sullivan

Right. And then there's the [J. P.] Schafer and [W. M.] Goodall paper right next to it, in which they looked at the November 1931 Leonid meteor shower, at your suggestion apparently.

Skellett

Well, I was with them, yes.

Sullivan

But they could not make any visual observations because it was cloudy.

Skellett

Oh, yes, yes. I remember that.

Sullivan

And so they had to rely on somebody else in New York State who looked at it, and so it wasn't a real tight argument that you could make.

Skellett

That's right.

Sullivan

But what I'm wondering is why did they not mention the fact that you had looked at the Delta Aquarids the previous July, which was brought out in your later 1935 paper? For those August meteors, or July meteors, you had correlated visual and radio.

Skellett

Gee, I'm so vague thinking back about that. See, Schafer and Goodall were really the radar experts over there. They were the ones that built the radio equipment, and we were all good friends and they were interested and worked with me, but I just don't remember the details of all that. I'm surprised, didn't I show, I remember there was something that had a chart in it and it had some meteors...

Sullivan

That's right; that's your 1935 paper.

Skellett

Oh, yes.

Sullivan

But I'm curious why Schafer and Goodall didn't mention these previous observations because you did have them, simultaneous optical and radio observations.

Skellett

You say the paper was in ‘35, but when was the data taken?

Sullivan

Oh, the data was in ‘31.

Skellett

Oh, is that right?

Sullivan

That's another question I have for you, but okay, you don't remember then why Schafer and Goodall didn't mention the July ‘31 Delta Aquarids, I guess.

Skellett

No, I'm sure there was a reason. One thing, I was not very much interested in publishing. I just didn't give a damn, you see. All I wanted was the doctor's degree. So my thinking in getting the data was to get it written up in a thesis and presented and get the doctor's degree and publish it, all right. I didn't care too much whether I published it or not.

Sullivan

I see. Okay. Well, let's move on then. I notice that you gave a talk at the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C. in 1931 in which you presented these results about possible ionization from meteors. Can you remember what the reaction was from the astronomers?

Skellett

No, I really don't. I remember giving the talk, but that's all I remember. I really don't remember. I think there was enough interest, though, that a few people asked questions, but there again, my memory is very vague.v

Sullivan

Did you have any ideas at that time to try to look for daytime meteor showers?

Skellett

I don't think so. You can't see a meteor in the daytime very well.

Sullivan

Well, but Lovell after the war did quite a bit of this.

Skellett

Oh, I know. Lots was done afterwards, because, well, you know the literature better than I do now.

Sullivan

But you're saying the signal is a good bit weaker in the daytime.

Skellett

I don't know. We didn't shoot it up in the daytime, I don't think.

Sullivan

But what I'm asking is that this would seem to be something you could do and maybe really contribute, because there would be no other way of seeing these meteor showers.

Skellett

That's right.

Sullivan

Did this idea ever occur to you?

Skellett

I don't think so. One thing you have to remember is that our radar wasn't like the later ones were, sensitive enough. We only got signals back from a good, bright streak in the sky. The little guys that went by, we didn't get them.

Sullivan

Okay. That's a big difference between after the war and before.

Skellett

You know, radar really only came to its prime development due the war.

Sullivan

Right. And that's of course, what really helped radio astronomy take off.

Skellett

Sure.

Sullivan

Did you ever think about trying to calculate velocities from the radar signals?

Skellett

No. I know what you mean, no. I'm sure we didn't.

Sullivan

Was it, once again, that it just couldn't be done?

Skellett

Well, we didn't see an easy way to do it.

Sullivan

You thought about it, though.

Skellett

I'm not sure. I just don't remember.

Sullivan

Okay. Let's move on to the 1935 paper in which you discuss your visual observations and how they correlated with the radio from 1931 and 1932, and my first question is, why was there this delay in publishing this? [Sullivan: answered in his letter of 9/15/77]

Skellett

Gee, I didn't realize there was a delay. I'll tell you what I'd like to do. Things are happening in my family. My sister died yesterday.

Sullivan

Oh, I see. I'm sorry.

Skellett

So, I didn't do anything about looking anything up. But I'd like to go back, I've got some reprints and see if I can refresh my memory. Hey, incidentally, what are you going to do with this data?

Sullivan

Eventually, I'm going to write a book about the history and development of radio astronomy.

Skellett

Oh, I see.

Sullivan

It's a few years off because it's going to be a very conclusive book, inclusive I mean, but that's the eventual goal.

Skellett

Yes. Well, look, why don't I do this? I may be able to help you a little bit more if I look up the data and try to get some answers for you. Here's the thing, we're going to the funeral, which is up in St. Louis, so we'll be gone for at least a week. Can you wait another week or two?

Sullivan

Okay. I'll give you a call again?

Skellett

Yes.

Sullivan

Okay, and then you have all of those papers?

Skellett

I think I can find them all.

Sullivan

I'll call you up and ask you these questions and see if anything more comes back to you.

Skellett

You've covered the field that you want pretty well, haven't you?

Sullivan

I was just about at the end of it. Let me see what else I have here. So you don't remember why that paper was delayed?

Skellett

No, I don't. That's what I'd like to check out.

Sullivan

Okay. But you did get your degree in 1933.

Skellett

Yes, I did. And the thesis was approved before I got the degree, see? So I had the data back in ‘33, so why, are you sure you've got all the publications?

Sullivan

Right. Yes, I'm pretty sure.

Skellett

I'd like to check into that. And I'll do that within, as soon as I come back, and then if you'll call me in about two weeks.

Sullivan

Okay. Do you remember at all why you did not do more pulse work during showers? There was only these three showers that were ever looked at.

Skellett

Yes. I think it was pretty much like the Jansky thing. We had gone through the motions. We did quite a bit of work. There were quite a few nights we laid out there in the cold, and we finished this thing up and it was written up of course, in the Bell Laboratory’s records. We had ways of filing our data. And so I moved on to another job.

Sullivan

You considered it a closed case, more or less?

Skellett

Pretty much, yes. We'd shown what we set out to show and what else can you do? Just keep taking data of the same kind of thing over and over?

Sullivan

I guess you'd also shown that these were not of serious consequence for radio telephone communications.

Skellett

That's right.

Sullivan

So it was rather analogous to Janksy's thing. Okay, one final question. I would imagine that you did not think of yourself as founding or beginning to found any kind of a field that might be called radar astronomy.

Skellett

No, not at all. No, we didn't think like that. And I don't know whether Karl Jansky did or not, but I don't think so.

Sullivan

But it's rather ironic that I think that one can say that both radio and radar astronomy began at the same lab the same year.

Skellett

That's right. That's interesting.

Sullivan

But not because of a group sort of working away at it, just by accident. Well, not really by accident in your case. No, it's not by accident in your case. Okay, well thank you very much, Dr. Skellett. I'll give you a ring back some evening about two weeks from now.

Skellett

Yes. I hate to ask you again, but what was your name?

Sullivan

W. T. Sullivan. Shall I give you my address?

Skellett

No, I guess that's all right. You're going to call me, aren't you?

Sullivan

All right. I'll give you a call.

Skellett

Should I know you? Have we ever met?

Sullivan

I don't think so, no. If you were located somewhere a bit more convenient to me, I'd love to come and visit, but I'm afraid I’ll never get to Sarasota.

Skellett

Where are you? Washington, D.C.?

Sullivan

No, in Seattle.

Skellett

Oh, out there! Sure.

Sullivan

University of Washington.

Skellett

Well, okay.

Sullivan

Thank you very much. I'll call you again. [Sullivan: not done until 6/83!] That finishes the first part of the interview with A. M. Skellett over the phone on 26 August ’77.


Modified on Tuesday, 29-Jan-2013 08:50:31 EST by Ellen Bouton, Archivist (Questions or feedback)