How Detection Of An Extraterrestrial Signal Led To The Non-Existence Of TV Channel 37

The range was kept clear in order to help astronomers study the skies, with a little assistance from cosmologists and... alien rumors. Image credit: blackboard1965/

For a long time, in many places, there was no TV channel 37. If you were flicking through the channels in the US, Canada, Mexico, or several parts of Europe or Asia, you would find a gap between 36 and 38 filled entirely with static.

When the U.S. Federal Communications Commission opened up ultra high frequency signals for use by television stations in 1952, there were, of course, many companies clamoring for their own bandwidth. 2,002 new channels were created in 1,274 cities across the US, but number 37 remained untouched.

This isn't some story of hotel rooms that refuse to have room 13 for fear of bad luck. The range was kept clear in order to help astronomers study the skies, with a little assistance from cosmologists and... alien rumors.

In 1931, radio engineer employee Karl Jansky was tasked with discovering the sources of static that were interfering with transatlantic telephone transmissions. Using impressive equipment he had created himself for the task, he was able to identify three types of interfering static: local thunderstorms, thunderstorms in the distance, and a third source he cautiously referred to as "composed of very steady hiss static the origin of which is not yet known".

He suspected – correctly – that the signal was coming not from Earth, but rather from the center of our galaxy. He had made the first detection of a signal of extraterrestrial origin. Radio astronomy took decades from this point to really kick off, Ernie Smith wrote on the topic of Channel 37 on Tedium. It wasn't until after the war when the field got really exciting, with the creation of a 121-meter (400-foot) wide radio telescope in Danville, Illinois.

The telescope relied on being able to use the 608-614 megahertz range.

"For engineering reasons that we could only build a really big one if we had a frequency round about 600 megahertz," British mathematician and cosmologist George C. McVittie recalled in an interview with the American Institute of Physics. "Otherwise, the perfection of the reflector, if we went to a shorter wavelength, was not something that you could by the acre, at least not at that time, which was the late 1950. And so we picked upon this 610 megahertz band as the observing frequency."

They had a range, but needed to be sure that it could be kept free from human interference. There was no point in having this gigantic radio telescope only for it to mainly pick up reruns of I Love Lucy. The problem was, the range happened to be right where Channel 37 would go – and television stations wanted it badly.

"Naturally the Federal Communications Commission kept on saying, 'No, no, a thousand times no, it's a ridiculous idea. We can't remove a television channel from the television service for the sake of you radio astronomers. Go away.'" McVittie said. "But we wouldn't go away."

They persisted to no avail until suddenly, one day, the FCC made channel 37 a silent zone reserved for scientific research, with zero explanation. However, McVittie does have one theory what went on; a complete lack of understanding of radio telescopy may have saved radio telescopy.

"Well, rumors have had it that during that summer or spring; somehow the news got around that here was this new way of listening to little green men on Mars," McVittie said. "This is what radio astronomy seemed to the ordinary public."

"And the FCC was preventing it from being developed in the United States. We got rumors, George particularly from friends he knew, that gradually a huge accumulation of letters arrived at the FCC, protesting against this nonsupport of this new science, whatever it was. And that this finally persuaded the FCC that they'd better give in. Nobody knows."

[H/T: Tedium]



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