Save the Holmdel Antenna!

I’ve used the above image hundreds of times in popular talks. It shows Robert W. Wilson (left) and Arno A. Penzias (right) standing in front of the famous horn antenna that (accidentally) discovered what we now know to be the cosmic microwave background radiation left over after the Big Bang. Penzias and Wilson made their historic measurements in 1964, published their results in 1965, and received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978.

At the time of their historic experiment, the scientists were working at Bell Telephone Laboratories at Holmdel, New Jersey, on Project Echo. The antenna was built to receive radio signals bounced off a passive satellite in a low Earth orbit to check the feasibility of satellite radio communication. They found excess noise in their receiver, which was eventually identified as a relic of a time when the Universe was extremely hot. Coincidentally, the theory of this yet undiscovered radiation was being worked on by Bob Dicke and his group in Princeton at about the same time (and also in New Jersey). Discussions ensued, and the discovery paper by Penzias & Wilson appeared in the Astrophysical Journal in 1965 beside a paper by Dicke et al. giving the theoretical interpretation.

Anyway, in case you were wondering whatever happened to the Holmdel Antenna, it is still there in Holmdel (at the top of Crawford Hill) and in 1988 was declared a National Historic Landmark:

Bell Labs (as it was usually known) was acquired by Nokia in 2016 and subsequently called Nokia Bell Labs. In 2019, however, Nokia put the entire Holmdel site up for sale and redevelopment of the entire site is currently being considered. This would not only bring to an end the connection between Holmdel and the telecommunications industry but also places a big question mark over the famous antenna. A petition has been raised to secure the future of this extremely important piece of scientific history. I encourage you to read more about the situation here and consider signing the petition.


6 Responses to “Save the Holmdel Antenna!”

  1. Definitely worth preserving, a wonderful historical artefact and a reminder of the importance of serendipty in science.
    Re “Coincidentally, the existence of this radiation had been predicted in Princeton at about the same time and also in New Jersey”, I would add that, as you know, the CMB radiation was first predicted by Alpher and Herman in 1948, as part of Gamow’s inspired program on the topic of nucelosynthesis in the early universe

  2. Greg Metcalfe Says:

    Thanks for that. I’ve signed. Now that I think about it, the site should have long since have had recognition beyond being a U.S. National Historic Site. “Where did it all come from?” is surely an ancient question.

  3. Andrew McKellar pointed out in 1940 that CN could be used to measure low temperatures, and in 1941 he derived a temperature of 2.3K which he called the “effective” temperature and a”parameter of some value” for interstellar space. Of course there was no context to interpret such a result. Sometimes research really is too early. Wilson & Penzias were lucky that the importance of their discovery was becoming clear

  4. The antenna is so old it appears as black and white, even in color photos 😉

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    If you put a wind-up gramophone in the cabin, you might be able to entertain a lot of people. But it’s not something you can store in your back yard until a museum wants it.

  6. Bhibuthi bhusan Patel Says:

    Holmdel Antenna can be preserved ĺike all othe scientific historical monuments taking right measures.

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