Remembering Professor Emertius George Swenson, Jr.

03/03/2017

Prof. Emeritus George Swenson Jr., a pioneer in radio astronomy and RF sensing, passed away at the age of 94 on February 22 at Presence Covenant Medical Center.

George Swenson Jr.
George Swenson Jr.
Swenson joined the ECE and Astronomy departments’ faculty in 1956 after receiving his PhD from University of Wisconsin at Madison and several brief stints at other universities. During his time at Illinois, he served as department head for the Astronomy department from 1970-72 and then as the ECE department head from 1979-1985. Although he officially retired in 1988, he continued his presence in the department and CSL, in which he was a longtime member, through sponsored research work until recently.

Swenson and his colleagues developed North Alice I and II, which were two of the earliest radio beacon transmitters launched with NASA’s Discover satellites. The beacons were created in response to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite, and they helped keep the U.S. in the space race.

"I wasn’t thinking about any impact at the time," Swenson recalled in 2007. "I was thinking about the science we could do with this thing."

Swenson also brought many firsts to Illinois that still have lasting impact. He established the first ionospheric research laboratory in the ECE department as well as the radio astronomy program in the Astronomy department. He conceived and oversaw the construction of the Vermilion River Radio Observatory, a 400 ft. radio telescope that has been used to discover many new radio sources. He served as the director of the Radio Observatory until 1981. Swenson also chaired the design of the Very Large Array (VLA) in New Mexico until 1967. The VLA is still the premier radio astronomy research instruments in the world.

Swenson will be not only remembered for the significance of his achievements in his field, but also his adventurous personality. He spent his free time piloting planes, hiking and exploring nature, which included being the first person to make it to the summit of Alaska’s Institute Peak.