May 30, 2020

Searching for Robert Burnham.

Sometimes, the quietest minds among us also have the most to share with the world.

Last month, on a warm summer’s day in August, the East Valley Astronomy Club, in connection with the Robert Burnham Jr. Memorial Fund, honored a man with the dedication of a small plaque placed on the Pluto walk at the Lowell Observatory. That man is probably the most unknown, but influential amateur astronomer of the 20th century; Robert Burnham Jr. a man that but for a singular colossal work, might have passed on into total obscurity. The book is Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, a three volume guide to the wonders of the night sky. The series stands as a tribute to Burnham’s encyclopedic knowledge and fastidious ethic and has withstood the times and stubbornly refused to be updated or modernized. This alone is a feat; I challenge anyone to show me a star atlas still in publication that has 1950 coordinates! Even in the electronic age, Burnham’s is still one of the very few “hard-copy” texts that finds its place permanently on my desk. I know of many an avid amateur that feels the same way. If I want to confirm it, I check with Burnham’s. Such a work of data, history, and even poetry could only spring from the mind of one that had a true passion for the night sky.



But the man behind the work was elusive and complex. Born June 16th, 1931, he spent most of his childhood in Prescott, Arizona, enjoying pristine skies with his homemade 6” Newtonian telescope. Such was the state of that bygone era of observing; for the common man, if you wanted aperture, you had to build it. Burnham was shy by nature, and it was perhaps this personality trait that have led him and many like him to the quiet contemplation of the night sky. The Handbook itself was conceived by Burnham in his teenage years, and was later to fill dozens of loose leaf binders as his knowledge grew. This was a time when few astronomical texts existed, and “Googling” was unknown. If was also a time of compulsive military service, and Burnham did his stint with the United States Air Force in 1951 in Saudi Arabia, during the era of the “brown shoe Air Force”, when the USAF had just separated from the Army Air Corps. One can picture Burnham, overseas, desperately awaiting to return back to the dark skies of Arizona and his beloved telescope. He never married, but one might say that the sky was his lifelong mistress.

Fame found the shy Burnham in 1957 with the discovery of comet Latyshev-Wild-Burnham, the first of six comets he discovered. One wonders if this fame was wanted, and how Burnham might have handled it. This also brought him to the attention of the Lowell Observatory outside of Flagstaff, where he gained employ from 1958 to 1979 working through an ambitious all-sky proper motion survey of the heavens. This was the kind of work that others might have despised, but Burnham seemed to gravitate to; long tedious hours of monitoring, often utilizing a blink comparator, the same device that Clyde Tombaugh had used to discover the ever-controversial planet Pluto a few decades earlier. And it allowed the Handbook to grow. By 1966, Burnham had self published this work, and it became the closest thing to a cult hit that we in the genre of amateur astronomy have ever had. Dover publications picked it up in 1976, keeping the familiar look, complete with the now signature type face intact! Burnham also discovered asteroid 3397 Leyla, and had the asteroid 3467 Bernheim (the original German variation of the family name Burnham) named after him in 1981.



Where he to have accomplished nothing but the survey, Burnham would’ve made his mark at Lowell. But ironically, few knew or were even close to the elusive and retiring Burnham. He worked only with fellow astronomer Norman Thomas, and lived an almost monastic life, devoting his entire time to the survey and the Handbook. Finally, in 1979 the survey was completed and the observatory informed Burnham that his services would no longer be required. Almost insultingly, he was informed that the position of janitor was open, should he want it!

At this point in the story, Burnham seems to have suffered a major mental departure from reality; its impossible for us to speak with total authority as to what went on inside his brilliant mind, but the blow must have been devastating. Burnham himself refused to believe that the impending termination was real, and suffered a slow decline in what was to be the last 14 years of his life. After his time at Lowell, he slowly wondered the American Southwest, living with his sister Viola Courtney for a time and then eventually turning up in San Diego. He spent his days there in total obscurity, living off of the meager royalties that the Handbook gave him. He tried his hand at some new works, including science fiction (I’d love to see some copies of his work if they still exist!) but a new life eluded him. He even anonymously visited numerous meetings of the San Diego Astronomy Association in Balboa park, were he often sold cat paintings! By this time, many assumed the Robert Burnham who authored the Handbook was the editor -in-chief at Astronomy magazine of the same name. This, and Burnham’s shyness, coupled with his refusal to “modernize” the Handbook, assured that he was to remain in a cycle of abject poverty. Burnham died March 20th, 1993 at the age of 61. His family was unaware of his passing or his stature in the amateur astronomer community. He was interred at Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery for veterans outside of San Diego, an anonymous end to a beleaguered life.



The life of Robert Burnham marked a true tragedy in astronomy. Not long after his passing, the Internet arose, and perhaps he could have found a new voice and audience via the new media, had he just hung on. Perhaps many of us feel the same occasional calling, to pack it all in and build an observatory off in the woods somewhere, a place where the troubles of this earthly realm can’t find us. We might see the Robert Burnhams of the world, and see a slice of ourselves in there, somewhere. But then comes the wonder we see at a star party, when a child see the rings of Saturn for the first time… and we know that we could never deny them of that, no matter how many millions of times we’ve had the same view. Hey, we’re all in this universe together, we might as well share it!

Stay tuned next week for a review of Burnham’s Celestial Handbook as a compendium to this piece!





  1. [...] a three volume compendium on observational astronomy. A few weeks back we did a piece on the man, Robert Burnham Jr. and his tempestuous life; now I’d like to break with tradition a bit a provide a review of [...]

  2. [...] were there, but we did manage to track down a plaque laid on the grounds a few years back honoring Robert Burnham Jr., the author of Burnham’s Celestial [...]

  3. [...] of particular personal interest that we had to track down: a small plaque honoring astronomer Robert Burnham, Jr. that was placed along the Pluto Walk in 2009: The plaque honoring Robert Burnham Jr. David [...]

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