Woodruff T. Sullivan III
Interview with Grote Reber In Tasmania March 12, 1978 Interview Time: 1 hour, 16 minutes Transcribed for Sullivan by Bonnie Jacobs
Note: The interview listed below was either transcribed as part of Sullivan's research for his book, Cosmic Noise: A History or Early Radio Astronomy (Cambridge University Press, 2009) or was transcribed in the NRAO Archives by Sierra Smith in 2012-2013. The transcription may have been read and edited for clarity by Sullivan, and may have also been read and edited by the interviewee. Any notes added in the reading/editing process by Sullivan, the interviewee, or others who read the transcript have been included in brackets. If the interview was transcribed for Sullivan, the original typescript of the interview is available in the NRAO Archives. Sullivan's notes about each interview are available on the individual interviewee's Web page. During processing, full names of institutions and people were added in brackets and if especially long the interview was split into parts reflecting the sides of the original audio cassette tapes. We are grateful for the 2011 Herbert C. Pollock Award from Dudley Observatory which funded digitization of the original cassette tapes, and for a 2012 grant from American Institute of Physics, Center for the History of Physics, which funded the work of posting these interviews to the Web.
OK, this is talking with Grote Reber on 12 March ’78 at his home in Boswell, Tasmania. And we’ve had a delightful weekend moving boxes around. But this is to fill in odd questions from the previous transcript and things which have come up this weekend. First of all, I was wondering why you put a solid surface on the reflector at Wheaton rather than just a mesh, which would be much lighter, of course.
A mesh is only worthwhile if it stays a mesh. But if it fills up then it's the same as a solid surface and it can easily fill up, with snow and ice in a winter climate. And if you remember, I started off at a very short wavelength so it was going to have to be a very small mesh. So that's all there is to it.
So it was basically the high frequency that you started off at? If you were thinking of 160 from the beginning you probably would have...
Finally have done something different.
Yes. Also, where did you get the idea to put the preamplifier right up at the focus, which was not the usual practice until the mid-50s again, really?
Well, it just seemed obvious, that is, signals that are going to be encountered are very small, so you want the least amount of loss between the antenna and the first tube so you put it as close to the antenna as possible. And at that stage of the game it wasn't going to be necessary to tune it, so it could be a fixed-tune system.
OK. Another thing is that we discovered many letters that you sent to, for instance, Otto Struve, and Shapley, and to the Office of Naval Research after World War II, seeking funding with a definite two year program. And this is when you decided you wanted to leave Wheaton for various reasons. Did you have any advice on where you should go for the money or were you just shooting around?
Not really, because I'd worked in industrial places up to that point and we just serviced commercial customers and during the War, we, of course, provided equipment for the military. So I didn't have any particular idea of where I could secure any money and these just seemed like possibilities.
And what sort of replies did you get?
Usually I didn't get any reply. So I deduced that people weren't particularly interested and that this was not the proper time.
And so in fact that was what led you to NBS [National Bureau of Standards], not particularly because you wanted to go.
That's right. The NBS was having its Radio Division reorganized and under this reorganization there was an expansion in staff and they had some extra money. So the management seemed to feel that they wanted to indulge in some esoteric things, but not too esoteric. So I was commissioned to provide a service on making observations on solar radio waves.
And in fact, as you told me this weekend but I hadn't realized it, you worked for NBS for three years to...
Nearly four years, about 3.5 years.
And that's the last time you were on a salary.
Can you tell me how you been supporting yourself?
I didn’t work for those radio companies for free, and consequently I always had a little more money than I expended, and so that was invested in a conservative manner and it has served me well in later years.
So you bought it during the Depression basically?
Yes. Benjamin Franklin had something to say about that. I believe his statement was that if you were effective you should be able to earn a living and provide yourself with enough wherewithal in the first forty years so that you could spend the last forty years of your life doing public-interest things. And Andrew Carnegie had a similar statement, from a very much richer man, who stated that he spent the first half of his life making his money and the second half of his life giving it away. I don't give much away.
So in fact, all of the grants that you've had from Research Corporation have been simply for buying equipment and travel and things like this?
Now in the previous interview I got the background on your father and where he came from, but I didn't get your maternal background. Can you tell me a little about that?
Well, I don’t know too much about it, but there were a couple of Grote brothers who came from Germany about in the 1850s. I believe they were people were disenchanted with the German operation after the revolution of 1848, which failed. And they were merchants, at least my grandfather was a merchant [Reber: William Fredrick Grote. He had two sons.]. They set up in Wheaton, Illinois as the Grote Brothers.
What kind of merchandise?
Just a general store. And I should say, it's an interesting story the old boy used to tell. In that day there were no automobiles and the horse-drawn was very poor, and so their merchandise came back and forth on the railway. And they got most of their staple products from the big city, Chicago, which is 25 miles away. And it was flashed out on the telegraph that there was a big fire starting in Chicago. So my grandfather thought, "Well, I'd better get in there and get stocked up on supplies before I get caught short." So he rushed in there on the very first early-morning train he could get, which in that day left about 4:30 in the morning, and he got in to the northwestern station and he was met by the police, who commandeered every able-bodied man and everybody else was turned back to where they came from on the next train. So he was in sort of prison, well, not quite the right word, but anyhow, they made him pump water. Now in that day they didn't have any portable pumps driven by machinery and these pumps were on a four-wheel wagon and there were two bars, one along each side. And they'd line about six men up on each side and they'd work this bar up and down by hand. So he had to pump all day until he was completely exhausted and then they escorted him back to the railway station and put him on the train. He figured there was no more point in going into the city.
What was the actual name of your father? I didn't get that also.
Schuyler Colfax Reber.
And your brother was a junior?
And we've discovered some interesting correspondence with your brother who was a graduate student at Harvard Business School.
But you had him running over to Harvard Astronomy Department and the MIT Physics Department. Can you tell me about that?
I was trying to prompt my brother, who had sensibly no interest in scientific matters and was all thumbs, in trying to represent me before people in astronomy and engineering. And this was not a very satisfactory approach.
One thing I didn't ask about before and I'd like to now is: can you tell me what a typical day or week was like from the period 1937 to 1944 in terms of just how did you spend your time?
I worked in the city, of course, during the day and usually had to leave about 7:00 to 7:30 in the morning, something on that order, because work in those days started at 8:00 and not 9:00. And then we finished at 5:00 and I'd get back home around 6:00 or so, and I'd get something to eat and then maybe look at the newspaper or listen to the radio for a little while.
You were living by yourself this whole time?
No, my mother was a widow. I lived there with her. Then I would undertake to do various things on this radio astronomy business, in the basement usually. Well, I took some time out, I used to change jobs occasionally from here to there and maybe take three months in between. There didn't seem to be any difficulty in getting a job, they were fairly plentiful. Radio was one of the big industries in Chicago. There were many manufacturers.
Even though it was the depression?
Oh yeah. Well, I think even today there is supposed to be a depression now, but try to get anybody good to do anything, they've all got more work than they can handle. It was the same thing there.
But you were a good engineer though.
Well, apparently. So then on weekends I would also work on these matters.
But how long did you work into the evening?
It depended. When I was making those first observations I used to get up about midnight or one o'clock, maybe go to bed immediately after dinner, and then I'd take these readings until sunrise at which time I'd have some breakfast and go back to work. But it was pretty obvious that this couldn't be kept up. So when I finally got some results, then I reorganized the thing so it recorded automatically and then in the evening all I had to do was set the dish to a new declination, calibrate the equipment, let it warm up and start the recorder operating and then the next morning turn it off. That's all there was to it. So that way I got a lot more sleep.
And on weekends...?
More or less the same kind of thing but maybe on the weekends I would work on hardware. But sometimes I would go into the city on weekends and work in the radio company shops on hardware. It depended. But weekends were usually hardware.
Do I have it correct that you basically, for a period of eight years or something, really did nothing else but this and work, you didn't take any vacations and you didn't play sports or anything like this?
Pretty much. Like the postman that went for a walk on his day off... I didn't do athletics or go to various kinds of artificial entertainments and those kinds of things because I just didn't have time.
But you did tell me that you played quite a bit of tennis.
That was some years earlier.
As a teenager?
Yes, and early twenties I used to play tennis and basketball, not greatly. I was never a great athlete or anything like that because I was too light. And actually when you get to brass tacks most of this athletic stuff seemed to be sort of dull.
Also, could you tell me some more details about your ham activities, when they began and when they stopped and more or less what you did then?
I was still in high school and I think I got my first license in 1927 or 1928. And if we'd hunted around in the right box, we would have found them. They’re around here. I think they're stored with my amateur radio receiver and a few other... Oh yes, one of those lists gives a box that has all the QSL cards and correspondence and all that stuff, amateur radio. Well, anyhow, I was still in high school, either 16 or 17, when I got my first radio license. [Reber: My operating license was signed by Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce] And then I did amateur radio for about four years when I got through doing college work. Then I graduated from college in the spring of 1933, you saw that diploma. And then I got assorted jobs hither and yon around the Chicago area and it was about that time that I became conversant with Jansky's work. Also we moved about this time because my father died in 1933 and we moved the following year, I think. And I never did anymore amateur radio after that, at the new location where I lived.
So you really switched from active to passive?
You did win a prize during that time which we came across. What was that?
There was a MacMillan Arctic expedition and one of the people in Chicago who had a son, I think, who was radio operator on this MacMillian expedition, put up a prize for contacting this expedition and handling messages, that kind of thing. And they didn't go very far, they were up on the coast of Labrador somewhere. I don't know how far they got, to tell you the truth. Anyhow, I think there were three prizes put up, and I got one of them, that was during the days I was still amateur radioing.
Do you see this period as vital or helpful in any way in terms of learning the basics of radio? Or did you mainly do that through your college work?
Well, yes, it gave me some idea of how radio circuits worked and gave me expertise in the handling of tools and soldering and drilling and laying out, and all that stuff. So that when I went to work in the radio industry I had a considerable background of just simple knowledge. And while I had a degree in electrical engineering, the first job I got was just as a solder slinger in a service department, where you start at the bottom. But the engineering department, of course, was looking for people who had more than just solder slinger experience. So then I got transferred from the service department to engineering.
Ok, moving on here. You mentioned in the previous transcript that you were going to try and get some of these old photographs, taken by your mother's heavy hand, de-blurred. Did you ever succeed in that?
Well, mostly at the time she was the only other person around there, so if I wanted a picture taken of me and something she was the available person. And she had some way of coming down very fast with her thumb on the button which would whacked the camera, and that would blur the picture. So if you look at a blurred picture, you can practically always tell that she did it.
But you were going to try and get these de-blurred.
Oh yes, I'd forgotten about that.
Has that ever worked?
When did I tell you that?
Two years ago.
Well, Ok. I showed them to you, did I? I had them with me and I went out to Green Bank and I left them with those fellows there. David Hogg had them and he made some inquiries, apparently it can be done, but it's not done on a commercial basis and the people he contacted were somewhat eccentric and consequently as far as I'm able to determine, nothing has been done. But he informed me a while ago he still had the negatives. So when the time comes, if this becomes a practical proposition, we'll get them de-blurred. A few more years won't make any difference.
Another thing that I've come to appreciate as I look at the records this weekend, is the tremendous problem of feeding the antenna. There are many problems, of course, the mechanical one of the antenna, feeding the antenna, the front-end, the back-end, the astronomical interpretation, but it seems to me that really was quite fundamental because there was very little information about how to go about doing this.
That's true, that is, in engineering school they don't teach you astronomy even as a liberal arts subject, because they've got so many other things they think are important for engineers. So, I was always more or less interested in astronomy in a peripheral sort of way and I took a few pictures of the night sky.
Which we found.
Well, you told me about this. But I'm curious about feeding the antenna, the design of the feed. How did you proceed with that?
Just straightforward, that is, it was pretty obvious the antenna should be arranged so it looks only at the dish. If it looks over the edges of the dish, then it can get extraneous radiations in from the sides, or from the back and so on. So, you had to have something which would shield the antenna and only allow it to look in the desired direction toward the dish. I think I read some articles by Southworth about this time, it was just about those same years, middle ‘30s, on wave guides, and I decided maybe the open end of a wave guide would be a good thing. So I set up a microwave investigation to determine the shape of the aperture that would be desirable to produce any given illumination onto the dish. And then I found that...
Were these rectangular or conical?
Well, they were cylindrical at first, cylinders. And there was a plunger in back so you could shorten or lengthen the cylinder behind the [Reber: pickup] antenna. And if you got the antenna just exactly right then the wave reflected from the back wall reinforced the wave. So it was sort of like a resonant chamber and the antenna was at an auspicious place. There was a hole only at the opposite end of the chamber so the antenna could hardly at all look outside. It was so far back up in the chamber and the pattern was determined by the orifice. It seemed to be fairly straightforward, but maybe not too obvious. Anyhow, I thought it was the way to go about it.
To get high efficiency, though... to do it to some extent is one thing, but to do it well is something else. Now, going back even before your time, do you have any opinion on why there were no known efforts to detect the Sun after the 1902 one, the last effort we know?
Probably the reason is that Planck's blackbody radiation laws became well known and it would be possible to compute the amount of flux arriving at the surface of the earth from the sun at any given radio wavelength. And it was far below what any radio receiver of the day could possibly detect.
Taken to 6000 K?
That's right. So a 6000° disk, a half a degree in diameter, would produce at 20 meters [Sullivan: wavelength] or whatever it was, such a feeble intensity that nobody even bothered. As a matter of fact, that's the reason I didn't bother to begin with.
And then I just took a gamble and lo and behold it wasn't 6000°, it was more like a million.
Also before your active work, can you tell me about this story that you heard about a fellow working in the Philippines?
Well, these stories improve with age and they change with circumstances.
Well, I'll try to track it down more if you can give me the start point.
OK. The story is simply this: there was a young man named Gordon Stagner who was one of the radio operators of RCA communications in Manila. This was in the early days of shortwave radio, the late ‘20s or about 1930. And they were putting through a straight circuit from California to Manila, I've forgotten the exact place near Manila. Anyhow, they used some short wavelengths around 15 meters, or 20 meters on that order. The circuits were pretty primitive, they didn't have superheterodynes either, because I saw some of that early equipment, it was nothing but a TRF set with regenerative detector and audio amplifier and some relays and things. And it came over as tone. And he found that at certain hours of the early morning the circuits seemed to have an abnormal amount of background hiss of them. At least, that's his story that they did. And that this was not present during the day, even at much higher frequencies. You have to remember these circuits operated at a frequency such that the radio transmission went around the curvature of the Earth, the ionosphere was effective. That would be near the horizon, but the ionosphere might be transparent overhead. I don't think he realized that, that wasn't realized until very much later. Anyhow, he told me that he investigated this matter to the extent he could, made some observations, but to the best of my knowledge he never wrote anything down. At least if he had, it has disappeared long ago.
When did he tell you this?
He told me this after the War, maybe about 1953.
And when did he notice the effect?
The observations were made somewhere between 1928 and 1930. I think he was of Spanish origin and a native of the Philippines and in the service of RCA, and I believe he had training here in America. He's not a Filipino. He got caught there in the War and served in a prison camp all during the war, and then when the War was over RCA transferred him to Hawaii and that's where I met him. He told me that after the war the policy was to 'Filipinize' the thing, that is, everybody on the staff had to be trained and organized and be a Filipino, now that the Philippines was a separate government. And part of his job was to 'Filipinize' the RCA operation in Manila. When that was completed, he was transferred to Honolulu.
Do you know where he is now?
In Honolulu, he is retired and lives there.
Could you please tell me the story about how you were getting so many visitors who came knocking at your front door and asking about this strange thing, that you a solution.
This contrivance, of course, created some local curiosity immediately after it was put up. But it soon became one of the features of town, like the courthouse or the church or the school or the police station. And the local people paid no more attention to it. This happened pretty rapidly, within a couple of months, really. But occasionally there would be people who would come along in an automobile and they would stop, and they'd gawk out of the window at this thing, and you'd immediately say, "Ah, there's a stranger in town." And this was in a place which at that time was rather conspicuous, that is, it could be seen from three streets. It was not too far, about 2.5 blocks from the railway station in the center of things, and could be seen from three streets. So any stranger in town practically couldn't help but see it.
It had a high cross-section to strangers.
That's right. So occasionally they'd get out and wander around and look at it and maybe take some pictures. And some of them would be sufficiently curious and energetic to come and push the doorbell and inquire as to what this thing was. So we thought that it might be desirable if we got a jukebox and had a tape recording - well it wouldn't be a tape in those days - but anyhow, a recording with a sign saying, "Put quarter in slot and find out what this is all about." However, we didn't get that far.
Listen to the cosmic hiss, or something like that.
"Messages from space."
What did your mother think of all this?
Well, she put up with me.
So it was just tolerated?
One person that went down and visited you, I forget who, remembered your mother complaining about there was no room to hang up the laundry in the backyard because of this thing.
That's probably true.
You also told me that Fred Whipple had the idea to put an antenna, a Yagi or something, on the dome of an optical telescope. Can you tell me about that?
Well, this was many years later, after the War, and I don't remember the circumstances. But it was probably one of these AAS [American Astronomical Society] meetings. I talked to Fred, you see in the ‘30s he was a graduate student at Harvard, and he told me that at that time at least they had had thought about it, presumably he and somebody else, and this somebody else wasn't specified but maybe it was Jesse Greenstein. As far as I know, nothing was done or even a formal proposition made to the management, but at least Fred considered it. And the idea was to put some kind of outriggers connected to the dome of the 60 inch telescope, and use that for mounting rhombic antenna on these outriggers, and then turn it around the horizon using the dome.
But nothing ever came of it.
No. There has been several circumstances of the same thing. In other words, they were going to copy what Jansky did.
So in the Friis article in 1965 Science he says here that Jansky...
"He wrote, for example, a detailed report on a conference that he attended on this subject at the Naval Research Laboratory in May 1948." That's actually in the National Bureau of Standards. I was there.
And who organized this meeting, do you remember?
I think it was an URSI [International Union of Radio Science] thing, but I'm not too sure. It was not astronomers, it was some communications thing, URSI or...
But you remember Jansky giving the talk?
Oh, definitely. It's very unlikely that there are any conferences of any kind such as this at the Naval Research Laboratories, it just prohibitively difficult to get the personnel in.
That's true. Would you please tell me the story about the people from NBS, when you were looking for a job, coming to visit and what happened when you went to show them the Sun? And who were they?
It was sort of an extemporaneous visit and it written down in some of those books, if we'd fished long enough. An appointment had been made by two fellows at NBS, Kenneth Norton and Jack Herbstreit. They been somewhere out in Iowa doing something, I'm not sure. It was 1946. I had my 480 megacycle really going good by that time. And an appointment was made for them to come and see what I was doing, so they did. And they got there about 11 o’clock, so I explained the equipment to them and showed them what went on, and I suggested they hang around a little longer and see the Sun transit. So they did, and the background was pretty noisy, that is, there were a lot of fluctuations on the background long before the Sun got into view. It was a little bit of an abnormal day because you could hear automobile ignition noises in there, which wasn't usually near as bad at 480 as it used to be at 160. But the background was fluctuating and I didn't think too much about it. And then there was a rise which went up maybe about a third scale. And then it went back down again. And this rise was all jagged, not smooth at all. And then maybe about another ten minutes later, there was another rise, and this rise went just practically up to the top of the scale and then came back down again. And then pretty soon, within a few minutes, the pen went right off scale and stayed off scale for about 15 minutes at the time the Sun transited. And then it came back down again and went through two more sidelobes.
Well, as you know now, but...?
Ah yeah, we knew they were sidelobes then. See it wasn't at all obvious until the whole apparition was over, but it was very clear once you'd seen this thing, which happened within an hour, that the Sun was exceedingly strong, fluctuating, and that these side lobes were now visible because the Sun was up by a factor of a hundred or something compared to what it normally was. Under normal circumstances you couldn't see the sidelobes at all.
And this was the first time you'd seen this sort of activity?
Well, that was probably the first time we'd seen it at 480 megacycles, yes. So, they were quite impressed. So the Sun put on a good show on the important date. Oh yes, during this period when the pen was off scale, we went outside. You see, the pen stayed off scale for about 15 minutes or so. So it was possible to go outside and unclamp the dish and turn it away from the Sun. And the pen came right back down to background level. So then we put it back on the Sun again and the pen went right off scale again. So, it was very evident that these disturbances were coming from the Sun. There was some limiting on the receiver, so when the pen was put considerably off scale you just didn't hear anything, the whole system blocked audibly. But when the pen was on scale, then you could hear this fluctuating hissing noise. There was another fellow with him, Salisbury, from I think Collins Radio at Cedar Rapids, there were three of them. And Salisbury listened and he thought he could hear other sounds, that is, grinding noises and that kind of thing, but none of the rest of us could.
And it wasn't long thereafter that you went to work for NBS?
That's right, the next year, that is, we went through a lot of rigmarole and finally I made arrangements to join NBS in the following year, 1947.
Well, speaking of NBS, this was the period also when you came up with the idea of...