Early History of Radio Astronomy

A website devoted to various aspects of the early history of radio astronomy, especially those connected with:
Discovery of Sun Aerial 1942
A Gun Laying Mark II radar receiving set similar to the ones along the English coast that accidentally detected 55-85 MHz radio emission from the sun in February 1942. This led to a secret report written by J. S. Hey. (photo taken from Army Radar by A. P. Sayer (1950) )

Radio Astronomers 1952
Radio astronomers at Sydney University for the 1952 URSI General Assembly. Left to right, ground level: W. N. Christiansen, F. G. Smith (England), J. P. Wild, B. Y. Mills, J.-L. Steinberg (France), S. F. Smerd, C. A. Shain, R. Hanbury Brown (England), R. Payne-Scott, A. G. Little, M. Laffineur (France), O. B. Slee, J. G. Bolton. First step: C. S. Higgins, J. P. Hagen (USA), J. V. Hindman, H. I. Ewen (USA), F. J. Kerr, C. A. Muller (Netherlands). Second step: J. H. Piddington, E. R. Hill, L. W. Davies.

Cosmic Noise Cover The book’s cover shows the rotatable military radar aerial, in Richmond Park, London, with which in 1946 J. S. Hey, S. J. Parsons and J. W. Phillips detected the first indications of a discrete source located in the constellation Cygnus (later called Cygnus A). They found rapid fluctuations in its 64 MHz intensity and reasoned that these were due to one or more discrete sun-like sources giving off sun-like bursts.

[blurb for the book] Providing a definitive history of the formative years of radio astronomy, Cosmic Noise is invaluable for historians of science, scientists and engineers. The whole of worldwide radio and radar astronomy is covered, beginning with the discoveries by Jansky and Reber of cosmic noise before World War II, though the wartime detections of solar noise, the discovery of radio stars, lunar and meteor radar experiments, and the detection of the 21 cm hydrogen spectral line, to the discoveries of the groups led by Hey, Ryle, Lovell and Pawsey in the decade following the war, revealing an entirely different sky from that of visual astronomy.

Based on exhaustive archival research and over one hundred interviews with pioneering radio astronomers, Cosmic Noise traces the intellectual, technical, and social aspects of this wholly new type of astronomy. Special attention is paid to military and national influences. The book also features abundant photographs and fascinating quotes drawn from the interviews.

Download here the book's annotated Table of Contents.

The Book's Epigraph

I had the opportunity only yesterday of watching Sagittarius rise in broad daylight on the needle of a millivoltmeter....It is certainly gratifying to see gunlaying radar apparatus put to such uses!

- Alan Hunter (Royal Greenwich Observatory) (1946)

From the Book's Preface: A 38-year Project

Freshly minted as a Ph.D. in astronomy, I began my history of radio astronomy project in 1971 with the observation that almost all of the pioneers of radio astronomy, including my advisor (Frank Kerr), were still available as sources for a book on the worldwide history of radio astronomy. World War II, during which radio astronomy and I were both born, had ended only a quarter-century before and memories were relatively fresh. Armed with a cassette tape-recorder, I began interviewing "old-timers." Guided by Urania and Clio over the decades, I gathered data from around the world as I could, mostly during 1972-88. The bulk of the initial writing took place in 1984-89, but then the mostly-finished book stalled as other projects intervened. Scattered efforts were sometimes possible, but in the end it took a sabbatical year in 2006 to resurrect the book and finally bring it to completion. The 24-year span of writing triples the 1945-53 period that the book mainly covers! As another measure of the time that passed, 60% of the interviewees whose materials have been used for the book have now passed away. In all, it took no less than 38 years to bring this project to completion.

From Chapter 1 of the Book: A Notable Predecessor

The major prior study of the history and sociology of radio astronomy is Astronomy Transformed: The Emergence of Radio Astronomy in Britain (1976) by David Edge (1932-2003) and Michael Mulkay, the former a student of Martin Ryle's at Cambridge (Ph.D. in 1959) who then became a founder of the "Edinburgh school" of the sociology of scientific knowledge, and the latter also a leading sociologist of science. Their book is roughly half history and half sociology. Its historical aspects, which have been important to me, cover to some extent the entire world, although with much more depth for Ryle's Cambridge team and Lovell's Jodrell Bank group. Furthermore, Astronomy Transformed focuses not only on Britain, but also particularly on radio source distribution and cosmology controversies of the 1955-65 era that are beyond the up-to-1953 period of Cosmic Noise. Edge and Mulkay pay much attention to the leadership styles and internal social structures of the Cambridge and Jodrell Bank teams, examining cooperation and competition between and within groups.

Two Related Books of Mine

Two earlier books of mine (both still in print after ~25 years) act as handbooks to Cosmic Noise:
EYRA Cover The former is reasonably priced (~US$70 via print-on-demand), but I'm afraid that the latter is only for the truly gung-ho or demented: Springer's price is a hefty $275, although Amazon.com has a few copies (in Oct. 2009) for 'only' $184.

Another New Book

Ruby Payne-Scott Cover

Here's a new book being launched in November 2009, a biography of Ruby Payne-Scott, the Australian woman who held her own with the best of the men in the world-class Radiophysics Division in Sydney (she can be seen in the group shot above). Her career, however, ended abruptly in 1951 when she became pregnant - in fact she had even kept her marriage secret because this was forbidden for female scientific staff.

Over the years Miller Goss, former director of the NRAO's Very Large Array, has researched this case, in the process becoming good friends with Payne-Scott's son and daughter. In this book he, together with Dick McGee, a Sydney colleague who knew her well, has covered all aspects of her life, not just her important contributions to solar radio astronomy and instrumentation in the period 1944-51. For example, she was also a Communist in the McCarthy era and then a longtime high school teacher.
Click here for Goss’s Wikipedia entry on Payne-Scott. Under the Radar: The First Woman in Radio Astronomy, Ruby Payne-Scott
- W. M. Goss & R. X. McGee (2010) xxi + 354 pp., 118 illus., hardcover
ISBN 978-3-642-03140-3
US$159 list

Publisher's blurb: This is the biography of Ruby Payne-Scott (1912-1981). As the first female radio astronomer (and one of the first people in the world to consider radio astronomy), she made classic contributions to solar radio physics. She also played a major role in the design of the Australian government's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research radars, which were in turn of vital importance in the Southwest Pacific Theatre in World War II and were used by Australian, US and New Zealand personnel. From a sociological perspective, her career also offers many examples of the perils of being a female academic in the first half of the 20th century. Written in an engaging style and complemented by many historical photographs, this book gives a fascinating insight into the beginning of radio astronomy and the role of a pioneering woman in astronomy.

Links for the history of radio astronomy

  1. NRAO Archives

    Former National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) Librarian Ellen Bouton (ebouton (at) nrao.edu), aided and abetted by longtime NRAO radio astronomer Ken Kellermann and others, has established a great website, as well as an important and growing archive at NRAO headquarters in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA. The archive contains the papers of Ronald N. Bracewell, John W. Findlay, David S. Heeschen, John D. Kraus, Grote Reber, and A. Richard Thompson, as well as those of NRAO itself (founded in the mid 1950s). In addition, the website contains:

    1. Complete scans of the notes for two of the earliest academic courses in radio astronomy: A 1950-51 course given by Henk van de Hulst (Leiden Observatory) and a 1958 course by Kevin Westfold (while visiting Caltech).
    2. An illustrated, detailed timeline of NRAO's history.
    3. H. I. ('Doc') Ewen's detailed reminisces entitled "Doc Ewen: The Horn, H I, and other events in US Radio Astronomy" (2005). Illustrated with many photos and diagrams from his collection, the text describes his discovery of the interstellar 21 cm hydrogen line in 1951, early US radio astronomy history, and then Ewen's long career (up until the 1990s) in the electronics industry working on military projects such as a radio sextant for the Polaris nuclear submarines.
    4. "Nan Dieter Conklin: A Life in Science", an autobiography describing her career from the early 1950s on as one of the earliest women in radio astronomy. This is a shorter version of her book Two Paths to Heaven's Gate (2006).

      By the end of 2010 I plan to donate to the NRAO Archives all of my papers and taped interviews (much of them transcribed) relating to the history of early radio astronomy, including a great deal of material that I gathered for the period 1953-63, which is not covered in Cosmic Noise. As one example, I directly used only 115 of my total of 256 taped interviews, and even much of the material contained in those 115 interviews was not used (especially the portions discussing the period beyond 1953).

  2. Radio astronomy history, especially American and NRAO
    NRAO has also assembled a brief illustrated history of early radio astronomy, emphasizing in particular American contributions and the telescopes at Green Bank, West Virginia.
  3. The History of Radio Astronomy: A Bibliography 1896-1983
    by Sarah Stevens-Rayburn (NRAO Librarian). With over 350 listings in chronological order, this is an extensive bibliography of papers that are historical in nature, as well as the historic papers themselves.
  4. Jodrell Bank History
    A brief overview of the development of radio astronomy at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester, UK, led by Bernard Lovell from 1945 until the 1980s.
  5. Activities and research by Wayne Orchiston

    Dr. Orchiston is a Reader and the History of Astronomy Coordinator at James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland, Australia. Much of his research over the past fifteen years has been dedicated to the history of radio astronomy, especially in Australia. He has also internationally energized those involved in the history of radio astronomy, in particular through chairing two Working Groups of the International Astronomical Union: on Historic Radio Astronomy and on Historical Instruments (including radio). He is also the editor of the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage, which includes many articles on the history of radio astronomy around the world.

    Some of Orchiston's publications on the history of radio astronomy can be found here and here; others are listed below.

    Orchiston has also written a series of illustrated articles on the development of early Australian radio astronomy in the Newsletter of the Australia Telescope National Facility (ATNF):

    "Focus on the history of Australian radio astronomy" (Oct. 2001)

    "The flowering of Fleurs: An interesting interlude in Australian radio astronomy" (June 2002)

    "A celebration at Dover Heights" (Oct. 2003)

    About the dedication in July 2003 of a replica antenna and plaque honoring the original CSIRO Radiophysics Division field station, which dates back to 1945, and at which were made many fundamental discoveries in radio astronomy (e.g., the existence of discrete sources such as Tau A, Vir A, and Cen A).

    "Radio astronomy at the short-lived Georges Heights field-station" (Feb. 2004)

    "Shame about Shain! Early Australian radio astronomy at Hornsby Valley" (Feb. 2005)

    Publications on the development of radio astronomy, especially for the period before 1965 (extracted from Cosmic Noise)

    Click here for a list generated from the References section of Cosmic Noise, which includes a large fraction of the articles and books (through 2008) relevant to the history of early radio astronomy. Many other relevant publications not in this list are fully cited only in the book's footnotes.