Two Hobbyists that Changed the World

Hobbyists and amateurs have reached the highest levels of human achievement, from backyard astronomers and garage chemists.

January is national hobby month, a time to acknowledge our interests that fall outside of our professions. Leisure time was once the exclusive province of the upper class after the Industrial Revolution, clock time, and electric lights dramatically changed most people’s relationship with work. For over a century laborers fought to reduce the length of their workday, which could range from 12 to 16 hours. With the slogan, “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what we will,” workers demanded equal time for their pursuits that fell outside of work. As they slowly clawed back hour after hour of their day, regular people began to pursue hobbies, some serious, some not so serious, but often to fantastical results.

Grote Reber Listens to Space

Hobbyists and amateurs have reached the highest levels of human achievement, from backyard astronomers and garage chemists. Consider Grote Reber, for instance, an American original born in Wheaton, Illinois in 1911. When he graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1933, Reber was already an amateur radio operator (just like Eco Relics’ own Doug “the Termite”) with an interest in Karl Jansky’s pioneering use of a radio antenna to detect radiation coming from the center of the Milky Way galaxy. Reber would go on to change the world with the idea that one could “listen” to space with inexpensive, user-friendly technology.

It was the height of the Depression, and Reber couldn’t get a job with Jansky at Bell Labs. Instead, he took a job with a radio manufacturer and built his own radio telescope in his backyard in Wheaton. Reber completed the first version in 1937, but it took another year of tweaking before the antenna worked as expected. For the next decade, he was the world’s only radio astronomer, as Jansky’s work for Bell was only intended to identify potential sources of static that might upset the company’s shortwave transatlantic radio telephone service, not chart all the detectable radiation emanating through the universe. After many sleepless nights at the controls, when automobile sparks were less likely to interfere with his data, Reber completed a radio frequency sky map in 1941 and expanded it in 1943 before eventually selling his antenna to the National Bureau of Standards.

Reber’s backyard radio telescope with access tower

In the 1950s, Reber was muscled out of his own field by increasingly expensive equipment and laboratory gear that other researchers acquired with the aid of military budgets. He shifted his focus to the medium frequency signals that bounced off the Earth’s ionosphere. Reber moved to Tasmania, where the ionosphere recedes on the longest, coldest winter nights, and worked with the university on more pioneering work in radio telescopy. In Tasmania, Reber lived in a house of his own design and construction that conserved heat so well that turning on the oven would raise the temperature in the house to over 100 degrees. Having finally turned his hobby into an occupation, Reber couldn’t stop himself from a little construction on the side.

Franklin Roosevelt’s Stamp of Approval

President Franklin Roosevelt carried his hobby to the greatest heights any stamp collector could ever dream. From a polio-stricken youth who needed a distraction that required more intellect and imagination than physical prowess, to the most powerful man in the world issuing stamps of his own design, FDR’s obsession with postage never wavered. He went as far as saying that he owed his life to his hobbies, “especially stamp collecting.”

(On August 25, 1921, Dr. Robert Lovett, diagnosed FDR with infantile paralysis (i.e. polio). He was 39 at the time.)

Many pictures attest to the daily time Roosevelt devoted to the activity while in office. And when a weary nation looked on, after years of Depression and war, to see their president calmly organizing his collection, placing the world in order, surely they too felt a bit of the confidence and reassurance that Roosevelt must have felt. This scene, Roosevelt peering through a magnifying glass at one of his many albums, is so iconic that it has been immortalized on postage stamps issued by Monaco, the Philippines, Yemen, and more.

Monaco issued this stamp depicting Roosevelt with six fingers on his left hand.

Postmaster General James A. Farley enjoyed perhaps the closest relationship with the President of anyone to hold his office. Roosevelt played a role in the creation, design, and promotion of more than 200 stamps while he was President, many commemorating New Deal programs, National Parks, and engineering feats like the Hoover Dam. Roosevelt believed stamps carried with them more than just the mail. For him, stamps told a story about places, journeys, and achievements that people could be proud of and learn from.

Roosevelt started his collection at age 8, eventually specializing in stamps from Hong Kong and the British islands of the Caribbean. He carried his wooden stamp box with him on every trip except his final trip to Warm Springs, Georgia, when a friend borrowed it to commission a leather replica as a gift to the President. Roosevelt died in Warm Springs on April 12, 1945. He left a legacy unlikely to be equaled by another stamp collector, raising the stature of his hobby from an obscure amusement to an international pastime.  

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In 1933, FDR sketched his own design after rejecting four versions of a stamp supporting Robert Byrd’s expeditions in Antarctica. Roosevelt highlighted Byrd’s route on a map of the world.

Eco Relics is celebrating everyday hobbyists throughout the month of January! Our warehouse is overflowing with items for collectors, makers, tinkerers, growers, and anyone with curiosities outside of work. Let us know what you’re up to, hunched over a bench in your garage late into the evening. Maybe we can help! 

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