Bell Labs-Holmdel and Radio Astronomy

Living Under the ‘Flying Saucer’

Growing up in Holmdel, New Jersey in the 1960s and 70s held a special distinction – we had our own flying saucer. At least, that’s what we thought. Folk lore and wild speculations abounded for years as to exactly what that huge three-legged tower actually was at the entrance to the Bell Labs complex. We kids were convinced it was something scientifically exotic – we honestly thought it was a spaceship. Later, perhaps in our high school days, it was said to be some kind of an antenna.

Ultimately it turned out to be a water tower. But I felt privileged to have it in my hometown and be curious about it. As a kid I was also enthralled with a huge radio dish that sat on another hilltop directly across the Garden State Parkway from Crawford Hill (I’m not sure if it has the same name). You could see it, as I remember, through a big notch in the trees. (It was dismantled long ago and a series of low-lying dishes now occupies that spot.)

bell labs-bell works water tower
The water tower at the entrance to the former Bell Labs complex, now Bell Works, in Holmdel, New Jersey. (Photo June 2020)

We called it the ‘radar dish’ because it looked like something out of Science Fiction movies. “It’s a radio telescope,” my Dad would say from the front of the car, as he piloted our Ford station wagon over hill and dale. I had no idea what that was but Dad was a Lehigh engineer (Class of ’44) so he knew about those things. And he probably knew that Holmdel was the birthplace of radio astronomy. The first empirical discovery was made there, as well as a very significant one following that (more on that below). And the work continued there for many years. The idea wasn’t invented there—people had been trying to detect radio waves from the Sun in the late 1800s after James Clerk Maxwell had shown that electromagnetic radiation was related to electricity and magnetism, and could exist at any wavelength.[1] But their equipment was too primitive, and scientists at the time also believed that the ionosphere bounced electromagnetic waves back out into space, preventing them from reaching the detectors. So it would be a while before any real discoveries were made.

A Major Discovery

It was  Karl Jansky, a Bell Labs physicist working at the Holmdel complex who finally, in mid-September 1932, made a substantial and tangible discovery. And he wasn’t even looking for it. He had been tasked with finding the source of static that interfered with short wave trans-Atlantic voice transmissions. He had been working on this for a year but at At 7:10 PM on September 16, as Jansky rotated his antenna the center of our galaxy came into view low on the Southeast horizon. (For a more accurate account of the discovery, see here). Of course, it was ‘visible’ in the radio spectrum, but exciting nonetheless.

For the first time, radio waves had been detected from outside the solar system. It even sounds kind of scary, if you think about how huge the Universe is…but exciting and groundbreaking nonetheless. And the discovery would go on to inspire many other scientists in this work. A few decades later it led to the conclusion that the bright and compact radio source at the center of our Milky Way galaxy is probably a supermassive black hole. And this happened right in Holmdel where I grew up, on the spot pictured at left where there is now a monument to Dr. Jansky. The actual monument is a representation of the shape and structure of the antenna, but much smaller. It sits on the Northeast corner of the former Bell Labs office building and is situated between the two concentric and opposed-direction roadways that encircle the building. The sculpture faces Southeast, the direction Jansky’s antenna was facing when he made the discovery. 

The extremely bright radio source Jansky saw with his antenna was later named Sagittarius A*(“Sagittarius A-star”). Standing there, you can just imagine him working his equipment and feel the energy of the event.

A Discovery for The Ages

In addition to Karl Jansky’s contribution to radio astronomy, there was another major cosmological discovery made on Crawford Hill with another type of antenna some 33 years later. The 6 meter Horn Antenna is the instrument used by the famed radio astronomy team of Penzias and Wilson when they discovered the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation in 1964. This antenna is about a mile or so (in a straight line) from where Jansky’s antenna was located. Dr. Wilson’s son Phil was a schoolmate of mine, and I remember hearing about his father’s work and how it was a significant discovery. That may be a bit of an understatement; it changed our accepted view of the creation of the Universe, and also established Cosmology as a legitimate science.

horn antenna
The Horn Antenna used by Penzias and Wilson in their discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). Photo made from a mosaic of 4 blended HDR exposures–June 2016; assembled and processed March 2022.

Interestingly enough, it was also static interference that Penzias and Wilson were trying to explain away in their efforts to probe the cosmos with their telescope. In order to do their work they needed to identify and eliminate the noise, but after subtracting all possible sources it still existed uniformly from every direction—it was coming from the sky. Finally, they had heard of an astrophysicist at nearby Princeton University, Robert H. Dicke, whose team was actually looking for the CMB. Through their interactions with Dr. Dicke, they all realized what Penzias and Wilson had found with the horn antenna: the left-over radiation from the Big Bang.

 Visiting An Old Neighbor

I finally went to see the Horn Antenna in early June of this year. It was hard to think I had lived so close to it for so long. The Garden State Parkway passes literally several hundred feet in front of it, although it’s up on a hill (Crawford Hill) and hidden by trees. The other ‘radar dish’ I mentioned earlier was on a hill directly across the Parkway; it’s the same hill but the highway was cut right through it in the 1950s. I had been meaning to go up there and see it, once I knew exactly where to look. It’s behind the same office building where Penzias and Wilson worked in the 1960s, which is now Nokia Bell Labs. One of the Nokia engineers who was old enough to know about all of this history happened to walk into the lobby while I tried to get access to the antenna. We stood talking for a few minutes and he told me I could just go up on the hill behind the building. He said typically only a few people a year had come looking for it, but that I was one of an increasing number in the last few months. A sign says you must be escorted, but he told me that it’s not true, you can just go on up. In fact, they’ve been discussing how to administer the site so that visitors wanting to see the antenna can simply do so. He also told me where to find the Jansky Monument, and gave me a little history on that discovery. The photos here are the ones I made that day, first at the Horn Antenna and then at the Jansky Monument at the former Bell Labs complex. It was a landmark day for me and I highly recommend seeing these two pieces of radio astronomy history.

Now, you might think that’s all—but there’s more. There was a surprise discovery waiting for me up on the hill behind Nokia…the engineer told me that there was another antenna up there as well; one that Dr. Wilson had used in his continuing study of the sky in the radio spectrum. You can read my next post to see and learn about that one.

  1. “Radio astronomy”. Wikipedia. Retrieved 07-28-2016.

Author: jamestcallahan

James T. Callahan is a commercial and fine art photographer based in Hillsborough, New Jersey. His specializations are in product, industrial and architecture. His fine art work takes a poetic look at the American Landscape through 19th Century architecture, historic and abandoned railroads and the American Small Town. You can see his work on his website at www.jamestcallahanphotographer.com, and on Instagram at www.instagram.com/jamestcallahan/.

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