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Jansky Monument.

Father of Radio Astronomy - Jansky Monument

Field review by the editors.

Holmdel, New Jersey

The sculpture resembles an artsy, tubular steel bike rack. It commemorates an astounding historic discovery -- that stars, galaxies and other celestial objects emit energy signals in the form of radio waves.

Karl Jansky.

The "Father of Radio Astronomy," electrical engineer/physicist Karl Jansky (1905-1950), was working for the R&D giant, Bell Telephone Laboratories, on this very spot in the 1930s. Rural Holmdel was base of operations for a group of Bell Labs researchers. Jansky was searching for the source of static in oversea radio signals. The large 300+ acre farm property offered plenty of space to set up his radio wave detection equipment (originally situated at a nearby experimental station in Cliffwood Beach, NJ), with a minimum of human disturbances (this was in the town's Pre-McMansion Era).

He'd started to record noise in 1931 with a large, spidery directional antenna (which rotated on car tires). On September 16, 1932, at 7:10 in the evening, Jansky picked up radio noise at a wavelength of 14.6 meters, but not from Earth. It was coming from the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

While Bell Labs is famous for its history of technological innovation, it might take a while (okay, sometimes never) for its managers to appreciate the magnitude of a breakthrough. In Jansky's case, while his discovery hit the national news, the company turned down his follow-up request to build a bigger antenna, since it offered no practical phone company benefit. They stuck him on other projects that had nothing to do with astronomy. Jansky died young, at 45.

Radio astronomy slowly grew as a discipline elsewhere.

Bell Labs burned down the researcher farmhouse by 1960 to make way for its massive R&D facility centered on the property, with a weird water tower resembling an early transistor (invented at Bell Labs).

Sign for Jansky Monument.

In 1964, the Labs hit another celestial noise milestone a few miles away -- the Horn Antenna on Crawford Hill, behind another Bell Labs building, had detected the microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. Two Labs scientists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, nabbed Nobel Prizes.

"Say, who was that other space noise guy we had?" someone in the PR department probably remarked. Jansky!

Suddenly, radio astronomy was relevant, important. In 1973, Jansky became a unit of measurement for radio flux density, jansky noise, which is perhaps the greatest honor to be bestowed on any nerd, ever. Photos of him started to turn up in every film and slide show the company produced about innovation. Jansky even had a Moon crater named after him.

Bell Labs was fading fast as America's great science pulsar by 1998, when this monument was erected in the median between the main building's traffic orbits. The original experiment spot was worked out through the investigations of two employees (one being Robert Wilson, 1/2 of the Big Bang team).

Bell Labs was sold to a French company, and the facility was shuttered by 2006. The monument was left untended and its future was uncertain. But current owner/developer Bell Works has tidied it up, and may keep it well burnished along with the rest of the historic property's legacy.

The Bike Rack of Discovery is angled to match the orientation of Jansky's antenna at the "moment of maximum signal." The sculpture vaguely mimics the spindly framework design of Janksy's antenna (radio telescope), and also evokes a radio wave cycle. A portrait of Jansky, in suit and tie, looking very intense and serious, is laser-etched onto an accompanying sign along with an image of his radio antenna.

Radio astronomy fans can see a full size replica of Jansky's rig, along with other historic radio antennas, in Green Bank, West Virginia.

Father of Radio Astronomy - Jansky Monument


Crawfords Corner Rd, Holmdel, NJ
On the grounds of the former Bell Labs (now Bellworks). Between the traffic orbital paths east of the main building.
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