NATIONAL RADIO ASTRONOMY OBSERVATORY ARCHIVES
Finding Aid to Karl G. Jansky Materials
Location of collection: National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Archives, 520 Edgemont Rd., Charlottesville, VA. Phone: 1-434-296-0203, email: archivist at nrao.edu
Size of the collection: 3.0 linear feet
Papers/Records created by: Jansky, Karl G. (1905-1950)
Short description of collection: This collection includes a small collection of artifacts and photos donated by the Jansky family, as well as materials related to Karl Jansky and the Jansky family.
Biography: Karl Guthe Jansky was born on 22 October 1905 in Norman, Oklahoma, where his father was Dean of the College of Engineering at University of Oklahoma. The family moved to Wisconsin in three years later, where Jansky received his Bachelor of Science and Master's degree, both in physics, in 1927 and 1936. He was a tennis player, a star on the University of Wisconsin's ice hockey team, and later, while at Bell Laboratories, became a table tennis champion.
Jansky was hired by Bell Laboratories in 1928 and was asked to investigate interference in trans-Atlantic radiotelephone service and suggest ways to mitigate it, maximizing the ratio of signal to noise in customer's ears. Beginning in August 1929, Jansky used a shortwave antenna, a directional Bruce array. During irregular monitoring in fall and winter 1931-1932, thoughout 1932 and into 1933, Jansky gradually concluded that the "hiss type static" he was hearing did not come a fixed direction on the ground nor from the sun, but from a direction fixed in space.
On 27 April 1933 Jansky presented the results of his work in a paper, titled "Electrical Disturbances of Extraterrestrial Origin, to a small group at an URSI meeting in Washington DC, and at the national IRE convention in Chicago on 27 June. A short note, titled "Radio Waves from Outside the Solar System," was sent to Nature in May, and he submitted the full paper, Electrical Disturbances Apparently of Solar Origin," in June to the Proceedings of the IRE. A press release from Bell Labs in early May 1933 caused great excitement, made Jansky a celebrity, and on 5 May 1933 the New York Times wrote about the discovery in a front-page, above-the-fold article, "New Waves Traced to the Centre of the Milky Way." In his August 1933 work report Jansky noted that his data possibly indicated that the static came from the entire Milky Way rather than just its center.
Until his early death in 1950 from lifelong nephritis, Jansky continued to work for Bell Labs, focusing on investigating and minimizing sources of noise in radio communications, as well as various defense-related activities, but never did further work on his serendipitous discovery of radio waves from the Milky Way. As others later followed up and expanded on Jansky's work, Jansky was universally acknowledged to be the father of the new field of radio astronomy. In his honor, the International Astronomical Union officially adopted the unit of flux density as the jansky (Jy).
Accession history: Materials have been donated occasionally to the NRAO/AUI Archives from 1983 forward.
Access to collection: No restrictions. The Archives are open part-time; contact the Archivist for appointment.
Publication rights: Contact the Archivist.