For decades, Americans relied on analog televisions employing UHF signals for our hundreds of (mostly inane) channel distractions, but one particular stop on the dial was nowhere to be found: channel 37. Apparently, the nationwide lack of a channel 37 on living room TV sets wasn’t some big coincidence, but an intentional decision overseen by the U.S. government based on two very obvious reasons: the location of a 400-foot radio telescope and aliens.
At least, that’s basically how Ernie Smith boiled down the information in a recent Tedium post republished earlier this month by Motherboard. According to Smith, the University of Illinois’ facilities at Vermilion River Observatory just so happened to be positioned in such a way that transmissions anywhere within a 600-mile radius—which basically includes every metropolitan area in the Midwest, some of the American South, and part of Canada—would interfere with the observatory’s then-cutting-edge equipment, which was trained on all that static raining down on us from the vastness of deep space (and, y’know, maybe other forms of intelligent life, too).
“The area around the 610 MHz band has, over the years, gained a reputation as being important to scientific research because of its placement in the context of two other frequencies important to radio astronomy, 410 MHz and 1.4 GHz,” explains Smith, later adding that blocking out that band with I Love Lucy reruns would be like blocking out the middle pane of a three-pane window open to the universe. Unfortunately for the eggheads, “it was literally the spot where channel 37 was supposed to go—and broadcasters wanted access to that channel.”
The whole story is fascinating, and in the end, somewhat miraculously (or thanks to some shadow reptilian overlord machinations), the international scientific community eventually managed to put enough pressure on the FCC to restrict channel 37 access for years in order to ensure the telescope’s research could continue. (Research at the site ceased in 1980.) “The tale of channel 37 reflects one thing: Without resistance, a commercial use case will usurp a noncommercial use case for a given resource,” summarizes Smith, a sentiment that has clearly won out so many other times over the years.
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