Grote Reber Listens to Space: Out Of This World Hobbies at Eco Relics

January is national hobby month, a time to acknowledge our interests that fall outside of our professions. Hobbyists and amateurs have reached the highest levels of human creativity, from backyard astronomers and garage chemists to Sunday painters and midnight scrawlers. Consider Grote Reber, for instance, an American original born in Wheaton, Illinois, in 1911. When he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1933, Reber was already an amateur radio operator (just like Eco Relics’ own Doug “the Termite”) with an interest in Karl Jansky’s pioneering use of a radio antenna to detect radiation coming from the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

Reber couldn’t get a job with Jansky at Bell Labs, which was not hiring when Reber graduated at the height of the Depression. Instead, he took a job with a radio manufacturer and built his own radio telescope in his backyard in Wheaton. Reber completed the first version in 1937, but it took another year of tweaking before the antenna worked as expected. For the next decade, he was the world’s only radio astronomer. After many sleepless nights at the controls, when automobile sparks were less likely to interfere with his data, Reber completed a radio frequency sky map in 1941 and expanded it in 1943 before eventually selling his antenna to the National Bureau of Standards.

In the 1950s, Reber was muscled out of his own field by other researchers with access to military budgets. Undeterred, Reber shifted his focus to the medium frequency signals that bounced off the Earth’s ionosphere, largely ignored by his contemporaries, but detectable with cheap equipment given the right conditions. He moved to Tasmania, where the ionosphere recedes on the longest, coldest winter nights, and worked with the university there on more pioneering science in radio telescopy. In Tasmania, Reber lived in a house of his own design and construction that conserved heat so well that turning on the oven raised the temperature in the house to over 100 degrees. Having finally turned his hobby into an occupation, Reber couldn’t stop himself from a little innovative construction on the side.

Throughout the month of January Eco Relics is celebrating everyday hobbyists! Our warehouse is overflowing with items for collectors, makers, tinkerers, growers, and anyone with curiosities outside of work. Let us know what you’re up to, hunched over a bench in your garage late into the evening. Maybe we can help!


About David Podris

april, 2022