Growing up in Wheaton, Illinois, he loved amateur radio, the exciting new technology of the 1920s, and, while a teenager, had made contact with stations in 60 countries. He went on to obtain an electrical engineering degree at Armour Institute (now IIT).
Reading of Karl Jansky's 1933 discovery of radio emissions from the Milky Way, Reber was sure that astronomers would want to study this phenomenon further, and reasoned that observatories would be hiring radio engineers. This turned out not to be the case; in the middle of the Great Depression, astronomers did not want to enter into a potentially-costly new field-- though some encouraged Reber's interest.
So around 1937, Grote Reber took matters into his own hands.
He later wrote: "The astronomers were afraid of it because they didn't know anything about radio. The radio people weren't interested because it was so faint it didn't even constitute an interference. Nobody was going to do anything. So, all right, if nobody was going to do anything, maybe I should do something."
He designed and built a 31-foot dish in his yard-- the largest parabolic antenna in the world, pivoting on a Model-T rear axle.
Wheaton had never seen anything like it. Neighbors were mystified by the bizarre device. Astronomer and historian Woodruff Sullivan wrote: "One can imagine the reaction of the townsfolk as the machine rose some 50 feet into the air behind the house at 212 West Seminary Avenue-- perhaps akin to those of Noah's neighbors when he started on the Ark."
But they got used to it. Children climbed on it, rhubarb grew beneath it, and Reber’s mom hung wet laundry on it.
Reber built and tested receivers sensitive enough to pick up the "noise" Jansky had detected at 20 megahertz. Over months, he swept the sky listening for emissions at 3300 MHz, expecting stronger signals at higher frequency. He detected nothing.
He built a 900 MHz receiver, and spent more months listening. Nothing.
In chronicling Reber's efforts, Sullivan wrote: "With Jansky's results in front of him and a dish in his backyard, Reber had no thoughts of quitting."
He built a 160 MHz receiver. At last, he began to detect "cosmic static."
In 1940, he published his first results. He continued to sweep the sky, and by 1944 could publish a map of the radio sky.
For several years, while World War II raged, he was essentially the only person in on planet Earth doing radio astronomy.
Later, when scientists and engineers busy with war work returned to their universities, and a great deal of surplus radio and radar equipment became available, the academic world began to explore radio astronomy, and to acknowledge Grote Reber as a pioneer of a brand new astronomical discipline.
Before him, there was one guy at Bell Labs. After Reber's work in Wheaton-- a sky map of modest angular resolution, some point sources of radio identified, evidence that the emissions were produced by a nonthermal mechanism-- radio astronomy had truly gotten its start, and hundreds of new practitioners began to build on what he'd done.
Reber started radio observatories in Hawaii and in Tasmania, Australia. He was iconoclastic and somewhat compulsive, and he seemed to prefer working alone. Yet he is fondly remembered by those who worked with him-- I've talked to a few.
I've been conducting a small campaign. To celebrate the centennial, I've given talks at Musecon (a gathering of people who these days are called "makers"), at the Naperville Astronomical Association, at the Rotary Club of Wheaton, and at the Wheaton Lions Club. I'll give more talks, if anyone wants to hear about Grote Reber.
Plus, I'm writing this posting, on Grotemas Eve.
I wanted to remind people around here that once upon a time, a determined resident of Wheaton set out to do great things, and changed astronomy forever. This story should be an inspiration to creative people everywhere; it was the greatest do-it-yourself project of all time. Well, since Noah, anyway.
The fabulous dish still exists, though it has been dwarfed by later radio telescopes. Reber reassembled it in 1959 while working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. I got to see it last year. So if you want to build a copy, see me. I took lots of pictures.
NRAO summarizes his career on their site.
To those seeking more detail, I recommend Joseph S. Tenn's page about Grote Reber, with an extensive bibliography at its "more references" link.
Reber's story is wonderfully told in Woodruff T. Sullivan III's book Cosmic Noise: A History of Early Radio Astronomy (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2009).
If you're ever in Tasmania, visit the Grote Reber Museum in Cambridge.
Some years ago, I found an unpublished aerial photo of Reber's dish.
Happy centennial, one and all!