The Bell Labs Holmdel 7 Meter Antenna

The Continuing Cosmological Work of Dr. Robert Wilson

In my previous post on Bell Labs Holmdel, we looked at the revolutionary discoveries that were made at the two sites there. In 1964-65 Arno Penzias and Dr. Robert Wilson, who still lives in Holmdel I’m told, discovered the cosmic microwave background (CMB) using the Horn Antenna at the Bell Labs Holmdel Crawford Hill Observatory. This microwave radiation permeates the Universe at the same wavelength in every direction, and is direct evidence of the Big Bang Theory of the creation of the Universe. The CMB is the oldest light in the Universe and can only be seen with super-sensitive radio telescopes, as it exists at only a few degrees above absolute zero. This far-reaching landmark discovery revolutionized cosmology and paved the way for Dr. Wilson’s continued research at the observatory. For this he used the 7 meter antenna pictured here. I made these photographs on a visit to its location at the Crawford Hill Observatory in June 2018.

7 meter antenna radio telescope
The 7 Meter Antenna at the Nokia Bells Labs Crawford Hill site in Holmdel, New Jersey, June 2018.

While standing in the vestibule of the Nokia Bell Labs building and trying to decide what extension to call on the phone list to gain access, one of the Nokia engineers walked in. He asked who I was there to see and I told him, “I want to see the horn antenna.” He was a very nice guy, probably a little older than me (I’m 55) and he said, “Oh, just go on up there.” That was a welcome surprise. In addition to the horn antenna, he said there was another antenna up on the hill.

The Element of Time

He proceeded to tell me somewhat of a brief history on Penzias and Wilson and their discovery, and also about Karl Jansky’s detection of the first radio waves from beyond our solar system, about a mile away at the Bell Labs Holmdel office complex. A bonus discovery was that there’s another antenna up behind the Nokia building. The engineer told me that the success of Dr. Wilson’s and Dr. Penzias’ work enabled them to continue their cosmic microwave research into the late 60’s, when they discovered various molecules in interstellar gas clouds. This work led to the creation of a microwave research facility at Bell Labs Holmdel, with Dr. Wilson being named head of Bell’s Radio Physics Research Department in 1976. For this he was project director for the design of a bigger and more sophisticated antenna to do the work. The result is what you see here.

7 meter antenna
Panoramic photo (made from a mosaic of 8 blended HDR exposures) of the 7 Meter Antenna at the Nokia Bell Labs Crawford Hill site in Holmdel, NJ, June 2018.

I got in my car and drove up the hill, around back of the office building. There were a few electronic shack-type buildings…and the horn antenna. But first, I drove past it to see the 7 meter antenna Dr. Wilson designed and used. The structure itself is an incredible sight to behold. It’s a massive clam shell-shaped antenna, probably 40 feet tall…and completely abandoned. There is also a control room hut next to the hulking structure, and along with racks of analog equipment you can see a Chinese restaurant menu tacked up on the wall. Obviously, many long hours into the night were spent here.

I love historic sites where you are only separated from the ‘event’ by Time.

My brother and I had a discussion about these pictures (of both the 7 meter and horn antennas) after my visit, and he made a rather prophetic statement about seeing and physically experiencing relics of this kind: he said that he “loves historic sites where you are only separated from the event by Time.” Since the 7 meter antenna here looks to exist exactly as it was left, my brother’s observation fits. I love that sort of thing because it connotes the vast stretches of time associated with cosmology, or even the relatively shorter decades of a human lifetime. Also, it references how photography enables the study and manipulation of Time. Here, I was photographing an artifact of scientific history, physically changed by time through deterioration and decay, but otherwise it remains as it was after its last use. The horn antenna is still used, and the engineer told me they even play music through it for company events! It has also been retro-fitted with Bluetooth technology.

The element of Time can be explored in many ways through the medium of photography, and for me it’s one of the more fascinating aspects of using it for visual expression. It’s also one of the primary aspects distinguishing it from other visual mediums. My plan is to go back to Crawford Hill at sunset with artificial lighting to create a dramatic and timeless portrait of the 7 Meter Antenna, a remnant of an earlier and important era of discovery in Cosmology.

(NOTE: further research turned up several Web pages with pictures and technical descriptions of the 7 meter antenna, and a web page showing that it was used as recently as the 2004-2005 observing season for continuing research in cosmic studies. It was previously owned by Lucent Technlogies and was refered to as the Lucent Technologies 7-meter offset Cassegrain antenna. However, given its advanced state of deterioration it appears that it probably hasn’t been used since.)

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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