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June 11, 2009

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Grote Reber's Brainchild: World's First Radio Telescope

The world's first radio telescope (left) was an amateur effort built in a Chicago backyard by Grote Reber in 1937. No longer in use, it's now on display at the National Radio Astronomical Observatory (NRAO) in Pocahontas County West Virginia. There are a number of active radio telescopes there, including the world's largest moveable land-based object, the 485-foot tall Green Bank Telescope. The facility is in the middle of a 13,000 square mile National Radio Quiet Zone, meaning no cell phones for the neighbors of this high tech array. The instruments are so sensitive that even spark plugs confound the readings, so all the vehicles used on-site are electronics-free Navy surplus diesels like the vintage Checker sedan pictured here. Beyond a certain point even digital cameras are not allowed, so I purchased my first-ever single use 35mm film camera, 12 exposures for $4 in the obligatory gift shop. Visiting the site was a curious mix of futuristic and retro technologies, all of it set amid rugged mountain forests.