Merry Grotemas!: A celebration in honor of the greatest radiofan who ever lived

Between 1937 and roughly 1946 there was only one radio astronomer in the entire world: Grote Reber, an amateur from the Chicago suburbs. Reber was a HAM operator who worked in radio manufacturing. At night, he'd come home and tune into the stars, using a home-built telescope he erected in his backyard in Wheaton. It was the second antenna to be used for astronomy ever, after Karl-freaking-Jansky's. Truly, Reber was one badass Happy Mutant.

Grote Reber died in 2002. He would have been 100 years old today, and reader Bill Higgins has written him a lovely and awe-inspiring tribute. Here's a short excerpt:

[Reber] 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. 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.

Via Bill Higgins on Submiterator


  1. Many of the worlds radio experts were otherwise engaged and not available for such visionary pursuits in the period of 1937-1944.

  2. Hard to believe there was a time when a “mad” scientist could invent and build  his own machines, be scorned or ignored by the scientific community, and go and do brand new science stuff and discover things.

  3. I don’t want to be pedantic but “HAM” is not an acronym and should not be spelled in uppercase. It’s “ham”. No one is quite sure where the term comes from, but it is most likely either derived from “amateur” or comes from an old slang term used by telegraph operators to describe a poor or incompetent operator (related to the way bad stage or movie actors used to be called hams). See:

  4. His ashes are located at Bothwell Cemetery in Tasmania and at many major radio observatories around the world:
    Mount Pleasant Radio Observatory and Grote Reber Museum, Cambridge, Tasmania, AustraliaParkes Observatory, Parkes, New South Wales, AustraliaMolonglo Observatory, Bungendore, New South Wales, AustraliaDwingeloo Radio Observatory, NetherlandsJodrell Bank, Cheshire, EnglandMullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, Cambridgeshire, EnglandDominion Astrophysical Observatory, British Columbia, CanadaNASA Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope, CaliforniaUnited States Naval Observatory, D.C.National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Greenbank, West VirginiaArecibo Observatory, Puerto RicoUniversity of Illinois Radio Telescope, Vermillion County, IllinoisUniversity of California at DavisUniversity of Hawaii, on the summit of HaleakalaGiant Metrewave Radio Telescope, IndiaTuorla Observatory, Turku, FinlandPushchino Radio Astronomy Observatory, Russia

    1. Very very cool.  Thanks for this list to accompany the article!  I am actually in Puerto Rico right now and I will be visiting Arecibo tomorrow.  I will look for Mr. Reber’s ashes and maybe First Contact will happen during the afternoon of 12/24/11.  

  5. It’s a pre-Cambrian radio telescope! Funny how it looks just like the modern ones I work on, but more viney.

    There’s a framed photo of Grote operating the 12 meter dish on Kitt Peak, hanging in the control room there. He looks happy to have some decent equipment to use.

  6. Maggie: I don’t want to give the impression that astronomers had zero interest in radio.  Some of them encouraged Reber, and various people planned experiments, tried theories to explain Jansky’s results, or tried sporadic observations of the Sun or the sky.  It’s safe to say Reber was the only guy doing systematic observations for a long period of time with a serious instrument during those years.

    Mdhatter03: Correct.  Indeed, not only were radio experts busy during the Second World War, but a lot of people who had not been radio experts became radio experts during that period.  So when peacetime came, quite a few physicists, engineers, and astronomers were ready to explore radio astronomy, following in Reber’s footsteps.  In many cases they took advantage of an abundance of surplus military electronics; Reber himself, after the war, worked with the sweet German “Würzburg” parabolic antennas captured by the U.S.
    Mark Dow: After Reber erected his original dish at Green Bank in 1959, he declared that NRAO should also have Jansky’s instrument.  It no longer existed, as far as I know, but he went to Bell Labs in New Jersey, obtained the drawings for Jansky’s antenna, talked to some of the people who had worked with it, and persuaded the original carpenter to come to Green Bank to construct an exact replica.

    So if you travel to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, you will be greeted at the gate by the original Reber dish on your left, and the replica Jansky antenna on your right– and Grote Reber had a hand in building both radio telescopes.

    Lafave: The Wheaton site of Reber’s first dish does not contain his ashes– it’s been a parking lot for years– but in the Nineties a historical marker was erected there.

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