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JANSKY, KARL GUTHE (1905-1950)

Radio engineer and physicist Karl Guthe Jansky discovered radio waves emitting from extraterrestrial origins, leading him to the development of radio astronomy. He was born in Norman, Oklahoma Territory, October 22, 1905, to Nellie Moreau Jansky and Cyril M. Jansky, dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Engineering. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a physics degree, Karl Jansky went to work for Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1928. His assignment was to track and study static interference, which negatively affected radio voice transmissions. Two types of static came from local and distant thunderstorms, but a third type proved the most intriguing. He designed a rotatable, directional antenna system to study these waves, and he discovered that their source lay in the constellation Sagittarius.

Jansky published his findings and in April 1933 presented his paper "Electrical Disturbances Apparently of Extraterrestrial Origin," before the International Scientific Radio Union in Washington, D.C., Unfortunately, he was assigned new projects, and nothing further was done with the work until it was taken up by radio astronomers Grote Reber and John Kraus.

Jansky's role as "the Father of Radio Astronomy" is recognized in several ways. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory awards a Karl G. Jansky Lectureship, and Bell Laboratories' Holmdel facility has built a scale model of his antenna as a memorial to his accomplishment. More significantly, the unit of strength of a radio wave emission is called a jansky. The tenacious, open-minded scientist whose discovery contributed greatly to the study of astronomy died on February 14, 1950, in Red Bank, New Jersey.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Daily Oklahoman (Oklahoma City), 19 October 1933. Roy Porter, ed., The Biographical Dictionary of Scientists (2d ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994). Woodruff Turner Sullivan, Classics in Radio Astronomy (Boston: Reidel Publishing Co., 1982).

Kitty Pittman

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