beamjockey (beamjockey) wrote,

Grote Reber and the Wheaton What-Is-It, Now Seen from the Air

I love knowing people who tinker with do-it-yourself technology. And this is one of the most spectacular do-it-yourself stories ever.

For reasons which will become apparent sometime in the next week or two, I have recently been contemplating the history of radio astronomy.

My favorite episode is the amazing story of Grote Reber, which is well told here.

Briefly, Reber was an avid radio engineer, graduating from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1936 with an engineering degree. Intrigued by Karl Jansky's recent discovery of cosmic radio emissions, Reber applied to several observatories for a job, but found that none of them were investigating radio astronomy. So he got a job with an electronics firm in Chicago.

And decided to take matters into his own hands.

Photo from Chicago Sunday Times, 7 May 1939

In the yard of his house in Wheaton, Illinois, at 212 West Seminary Avenue, Reber designed and constructed a radio telescope. It was a 31-foot paraboloid dish that could focus a range of radio wavelengths, and could be steered in azimuth. No one in Wheaton had ever seen anything like it. By 1937, Reber could begin listening to "cosmic static" from different parts of the sky. By the 1940s, he was publishing maps of cosmic emission in radio journals.

For most of a decade, he was the only person on Earth doing radio astronomy.

After World War II ended, astronomers and physicists left war work and returned to universities and other institutions. Reber had established that investigating the radio sky was worthwhile, and-- thanks to wartime radio work-- both surplus equipment and scientists with the know-how to employ it were available. The infant science of radio astronomy began to grow.

Eventually, Reber's pioneering instrument was dismantled. It wound up being reassembled at the entrance to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. It's proudly displayed beside a replica of Karl Jansky's original Bell Labs antenna, showing visitors the ancestry of the larger and more modern radio telescopes operating there.

In 1985, I was chairman of the Colloquium Committee at Fermilab. Our public information manager, Margaret Pearson, told me that the Dupage County Hall of Fame was inducting a new member, and she'd been asked whether we wanted to invite the guy to speak at Fermilab. When I heard the name "Grote Reber" I assented enthusiastically.

So I spent a day showing Reber around Fermilab and hearing him talk about radio astronomy, Tasmania, electric cars, and his experiments with beans. Ever since, I have been a fan.

Not long ago, I learned that the Illinois State Geological Survey had an online collection of aerial photos showing much of the state, taken in the late 1930s and early 1940s. I realized that such photos might show Reber's telescope on its original site. I went rummaging.

Grote Reber's radio telescope is visible in a 1939 photo of downtown Wheaton

I spotted a white circular object near Reber's address. There is no scale on the photo-- but Google Maps offers a scale on its modern photos of Wheaton. I measured the size of a nearby building along Front Street that is still in existence.

Then I counted pixels on the 1939 version of the building; this gave me a scale. I confirmed to my own satisfaction that the diameter of the circular object on Seminary Avenue is consistent with the diameter of Reber's antenna, 31 feet.

I believe I am the first to find this photo; I have not found an aerial photo of the radio telescope in any published source about Grote Reber. One could perhaps find other aerial photos of Wheaton in the 1940s; maybe an image showing the dish more distinctly could turn up.

Having spotted the dish in that old aerial photo, I decided I should visit the site and shoot some pictures.

Today the short stretch of Seminary Avenue has been renamed Karlskoga Avenue. There is a phone company building on the block-- AT&T now, formerly SBC, formerly Ameritech, formerly Illinois Bell... The telescope occupied a spot that's now part of the parking lot.

AT&T building in Wheaton

I was delighted to learn that the good citizens of Wheaton have installed a historical marker on the site, labeled "Site of the World's First Radio Telescope" with a good picture of Reber's dish.

A pleasant discovery

Even though his former backyard is now a parking lot, radio astronomers, and hams everywhere, will be glad to know that Grote Reber's hometown has remembered him this way.
Tags: astronomy, grote, hams, illinois, never pass a fiberglass mascot, nrao, radio, reber, wheaton
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