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Telescopes from the Ground Up
Portrait of Grote Reber Courtesy of NRAO/AUI

Grote Reber obtained his first amateur radio license when he was 16 years old, the beginning of an obsession that would make him the first — and for a full decade, only — radio astronomer.

Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, Ill., Reber earned a degree in electrical engineering and worked for a variety of Chicago companies. He won amateur radio operator awards and communicated with other operators around the world, eventually concluding that there were “no more worlds to conquer” in radio. Reading about Karl Jansky’s discovery of radio emissions from the Milky Way gave Reber a new challenge.

He visited a number of astronomers at Yerkes Observatory and various universities, trying to interest them in researching the emissions. He found that no one was interested — astronomers were skeptical and lacked knowledge about radio waves, he said, while radio professionals knew little of astronomy.

So in 1937, Reber took a summer off of work and half a year’s saved salary and built himself a radio telescope in a vacant lot next to his mother’s house. His engineering background helped him realize that what he needed was a parabolic dish to capture and bounce the waves toward a focal point, and he designed and constructed a series of radio receivers to place at the focal point in order to capture the waves. The 31-foot dish became something of a tourist attraction. Puzzled neighbors and strangers would stop by to stare and take pictures, and small planes passing overhead would circle the area to get a better look.

Reber returned to his day job and did his telescope research at night, sleeping only a few hours each evening. He found radio emissions from the Milky Way, the Sun, and a source in Cassiopeia, and made the first radio map of the sky. Astronomers were at first suspicious of his work, but after several of them toured his telescope, they became convinced that it was not a hoax.

Reber’s research was published, and he found a job setting up a radio program for the National Bureau of Standards. He quickly became tired of government work, however, and left to spend the rest of his life as an independent astronomer, working on telescopes in Hawaii and Tasmania.

A friend and coworker told a story about a young student who once asked Reber how to go about making new discoveries. Reber replied “Pick a field about which very little is known and specialize in it. But don’t accept all current theories as absolute fact. If everyone else is looking down, look up or in a different direction. You may be surprised at what you find.”

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