small logo Remembering:

Grote Reber, ex-W9GFZ
by Dave Finley, N1IRZ

SOCORRO, NM, Dec 23, 2002 -- Grote Reber, ex-W9GFZ, one of the earliest pioneers of radio astronomy, died December 20, 2002 in Tasmania. He would have turned 91 December 22. Reber was the first person to build a radio telescope dedicated to astronomy, and his self-financed experiments laid the foundation for today's advanced radio astronomy facilities.

"All radio astronomers who have followed him owe Grote Reber a deep debt for his pioneering work," said National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) Director Fred Lo. "Radio astronomy has changed profoundly our understanding of the universe." Lo pointed out that Reber was the first to systematically study the sky by observing something other than visible light. "This gave astronomy a whole new view of the universe," he said.

Reber's early efforts eventually produced such landmark discoveries as quasars, pulsars and the remnant "afterglow" of The Big Bang. Lo noted that this year's Nobel prizes in physics recognized scientists who had pioneered X-ray and neutrino observations.

As a radio engineer and avid Amateur Radio operator in Wheaton, Illinois, in the 1930s, Reber was inspired by Karl Jansky's 1932 discovery of natural radio emissions from outer space. The concept of viewing space via radio signals presented Reber--who had worked his share of terrestrial DX--with a whole new challenge that he attacked with vigor. Analyzing the problem as an engineer, Reber concluded that what he needed was a parabolic dish antenna--something quite uncommon in the 1930s. In 1937, using his own funds, he constructed a nine-meter (31.4 feet) dish antenna in his backyard. The strange contraption attracted the attention of curious neighbors and became somewhat of a minor tourist attraction, he later recalled.

Using electronics he designed and built that pushed the technical capabilities of the era, Reber succeeded in detecting "cosmic static" in 1939. In 1941, Reber produced the first radio map of the sky, based on a series of systematic observations. His radio astronomy work continued over the next several years. He subsequently pioneered in very long-wavelength radio astronomy, working on his own in Tasmania.

Though not a professional scientist, his research results were published in a number of prestigious technical journals, including Nature, the Astrophysical Journal, the Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers and the Journal of Geophysical Research.

Reber also received a number of honors normally reserved for scientists professionally trained in astronomy, including the American Astronomical Society's Henry Norris Russell Lectureship and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific's Bruce Medal in 1962, the NRAO's Jansky Lectureship in 1975, and the Royal Astronomical Society's Jackson-Gwilt Medal in 1983.

Reber's original dish antenna now is on display at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory site in Green Bank, West Virginia, where Reber worked in the late 1950s. Society of Amateur Radio Astronomers (SARA) Vice President Tom Crowley said he was among the many SARA members who got the opportunity to meet Reber and hear his presentation, "The Big Bang is Bunk," at a SARA meeting in Green Bank several years ago. "He was a wonderful gentleman and will be missed by all in the radio astronomy community," Crowley said.

All of Reber's scientific papers and records as well as his personal and scientific correspondence are held by the NRAO. These will be exhibited in the observatory's planned new library in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Reber's amateur call sign, W9GFZ, now is held by the NRAO Amateur Radio Club in Socorro. The call sign was used on the air for the first time since the 1930s on August 25, 2000, to mark the dedication of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (see "Ham Radio and the World's Largest Fully Steerable Antenna," by Dave Finley, N1IRZ, QST, Aug 2000). The W9GFZ call sign also was scheduled to be used for a special event that would have put a replica of Jansky's antenna on 15 meters. The event was cancelled because of the September 11 terrorist attacks, however.

Editor's Notes:

On 17 July 1996, Grote Reber told The SETI League's executive director:

"If you ask me, you're wasting your time. If there's anything out there, they'll find us. Remember that Jansky wasn't looking for the cosmic static. It found him."

In personal correspondence remembering Reber, SETI Pioneer Dr. Philip Morrison (ex-W8FIS) adds,

"The end of an ancient hero--the first of all real DX amateurs, and the first radio astronomer who knew what he was building!"

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