On This Day In History: Grote Reber, Great Amateur Astronomer And Ham Radio Operator Born – On Dec 22, 1911

On December 22, 1911, Grote Reber, amateur astronomer and radio engineer was born in Chicago.

He was a ham radio operator, studied radio engineering, and worked for various radio manufacturers in Chicago from 1933 to 1947. He self-financed and built the first radio telescope. He pioneered the new field of radio astronomy, and was the first to systematically study the sky by observing non-visible radiation.

He learned about Karl Jansky’s discovery (1932) of radio waves from the Galaxy (i.e., the Milky Way), and wanted to follow up this discovery and learn more about cosmic radio waves.

Reber applied for jobs with Karl Jansky at Bell Labs and with astronomical observatories to study cosmic radio waves, but none of them were hiring at the time, since it was in the middle of the great depression.

Reber decided to study radio astronomy on his own. In 1937, he constructed a 9-meter dish antenna in his back yard and built three different detectors before finding 160 MHz signals (1939). He did it at his own expense while working full time for a radio company in Chicago.

In 1940 and 1944 he published articles titled Cosmic Static in the Astrophysical Journal (Vol.100, page 279, 1944.). Reber spent long hours every night scanning the skies with his telescope. He had to do the work at night because there was too much interference from the sparks in automobile engines during the daytime.

He was the first to express received radio signals in terms of flux density and brightness, first to find evidence that galactic radiation is non-thermal, and first to produce radio maps of the sky in 1941.

Reber surveyed the radio radiation from the sky and presented the data as contour maps showing that the brightest areas correspond to the Milky Way. The brightest part is toward the center of the Milky Way galaxy in the south. Other bright radio sources, such as the ones in Cygnus and Cassiopeia, were recognized for the first time.

In the years from 1938 to 1943, Reber made the first surveys of radio waves from the sky and published his results both in engineering and astronomy journals. His accomplishments insured that radio astronomy became a major field of research following World War II. Research groups in many countries began building bigger and better antennas and receivers to follow up on Reber’s discoveries.

Grote Reber donated his telescope to NRAO at Green Bank, WV, and supervised its assembly there in the early 1960s.

It remains there as a historical monument.

He died in Tasmania on December 20, 2002.

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