In memoriam Robert Burnham

It was a December when I learned what had happened to him.

There were two unrelated Robert Burnhams active in astronomy around the same time. One was a writer for, and from 1992 editor of, Astronomy magazine; the other, named Robert Burnham Jr., was the creator of Burnham’s Celestial Handbook.

My impression of Robert Burnham Jr. was that he was a semi-professional astronomer who hung around the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill at Flagstaff. His book was over two thousand pages of amazingly thorough information, organized by constellations – tables, diagrams, graphs, reproductions (at newspaper quality) of black-and-white photos, quotations from poetry and eastern wisdom, and numerous passages of superb prose on the lore of the stars and the spirit of the universe as well as on astrophysics. It was apparently produced with a typewriter, yet was tightly arranged inside rectangles of lines on rather small pages. To collect the information had to be an incredible amount of work for one person; and then he had given himself the task of packing it into this rigid form, which seemed to allow for no errors or afterthoughts!

Burnham's Celestial Handbook

He published it himself in 1966, serially in eight loose-leaf volumes, and Dover, the reprint company, republished it as three volumes, revised and enlarged, in 1978   I remember that I tried phoning to the Lowell Observatory, and Burnham himself answered, and when I asked how to obtain his book he replied curtly “Dover Publications” and put down the phone.

Burnham’s book was a treasure. Perhaps, over-encouraged by praise, and thinking he had made the breakthrough to universal fame, he tried next a fantasy novel, for which he found no publisher. One article about him appeared, in 1982 in Astronomy magazine, but it was an interview of himself by himself. (His own far longer version of this self-interview was later found among his papers, 37 single-spaced pages, full of his condemnation of Western materialism and organized religion.) When George Lovi in his Sky & Telescope column remarked that few people had the dedication needed for such a large project as the Handbook, Burnham sent an angry letter (printed May 1984) about the miserable rewards for such labors contrasted with the millions for astrology, Velikovsky, U.F.O., the Bermuda Triangle and other claptrap.

Then in December 1997 I learned, I’m not sure how, of Burnham’s tragic end. He had disappeared, lived for years in poverty at San Diego, spending his nights in a flophouse and his days on a park bench trying to sell paintings of cats. (Did he use watercolors or what? – I would like to know more.) He wasted away – was thin, sunburnt, bearded, had pneumonia, a bad heart, gangrene in one foot), and died in a hospital in 1993, unknown to his relatives till two years later.

All this had been revealed by an article that appeared in the Phoenix New Times, of September 25, 1997, by Tony Ortega. He had set out to find and interview Burnham, found his Phoenix relatives, and learned from them that Burnham had died years earlier. Somehow I got into corresponding with Ortega, who sent me the newspaper, and with Leif Robinson the editor of Sky & Telescope; apparently I suggested to them some way of further celebrating Burnham’s life. Ortega: “Your copy is on its way. I’ll mention your idea about the novel to Viola” (Burnham’s sister). Robinson: “Hi Guy! The thunderous applause you hear says that you hit the nail on the head! You’re the first to do so out of many. I’ve passed your interesting suggestion on to Rick Fienberg.”

In January of 1998 the Astronomy Book Club used Burnham’s Celestial Handbook as an inducement to join, offering “a $60.00 value for only $4.95.” I supposed that to be a canny business move – book clubs sometimes used my Astronomical Calendar that way – but it seemed callous to sell off the dead man’s masterpiece so cheaply.

Much later, I came across that old newspaper article (titled “Heaven’s Guide” on the front of the paper and “Sky Writer” inside) and wanted to re-read it. It covered twelve large pages of yellowing paper, I tried to scan it so as to read it more easily, gave up and used the old email address of Tony Ortega, found he was now editor of the Village Voice of New York; he pointed out to me that the old article was online. The article was almost a biographical book, full and eloquent though restrained; it appeared to have cost Ortega an amount of work comparable with Burnham’s; much of the text was a knitting of quotations from the many witnesses he had tracked down and interviewed. The article reads almost like the novel I had apparently suggested might be made of Burnham’s life.

Burnham’s grandparents immigrated from Germany, his parents moved from Chicago to Prescott, Arizona, when he was a child. He was nicknamed “Cosmo” at home, “Professor” at school. He had a passion for science, collected rocks, fossils, meteorites, ancient coins, but got no higher education. He did four years in the air force as a radar technician, came home and worked as a shipping clerk at a clothes factory, but in his spare time made notes on objects in the sky, observing with telescopes he built for himself. With one of these, which had no finder, setting-circles, or mount, and had to be merely propped on the railing of his mother’s porch, he had the rare luck and skill to notice a faint smudge that was a comet, and to know how to report it by telegram; since it had been independently discovered a few hours earlier (though reported later) by Russian and Swiss professionals, it is called Comet C/1957 U1 Latyshev-Wild-Burnham.

The Arizona papers picked this up and made him something of a celebrity. Senator Barry Goldwater, seeing him as an example of unassisted American enterprise and an asset against Sputnik-era Russia, visited him and gave him a grander telescope; Burnham gushed, or joked, that he would name his next comet “Goldwater” (which was not in his power to do). It was with his homemade telescope that he went on to be the sole discoverer of the first comet of 1958 (then designated 1958a, now C/1958 D1 Burnham).

The Lowell Observatory needed someone for the low-paid work of “blink-comparing” thousands of photographic plates to find high-proper-motion stars, that is, near ones. This was a re-use of the tedious technique for which Clyde Tombaugh – also an astronomical amateur, a Kansas farmer – had been hired thirty years earlier to search for Percival Lowell’s conjectured Planet X, and had discovered Pluto. The job was offered to Burnham because, as a comet-searcher, he clearly had the patience. He and his co-worker Norman Thomas used the “Pluto-scope” to make the plates that they then “blinked” as Tombaugh had done. Burnham lived on Mars Hill in a rent-free cabin, packed with his books and his private museum of objects.

The job was supposed to be a two-year one, but its results were so impressive that it kept getting funded by the National Science Foundation. Among the millions of stars on their photographic plates Burnham and Thomas detected not only 9,000 stars that slightly moved, but 1500 asteroids and too many variable stars to record; and Burnham was discoverer or co-discoverer of four more comets (C/1958 R1 Burnham-Slaughter, C/1959 Y1 Burnham, C/1960 B1 Burnham, and periodic 56P/1959 B1 Slaughter-Burnham). He kept on adding to his celestial notes, and had plenty of access to astronomical information and photographs at the observatory. The notes became a book whose scope he kept increasing; it thoroughly covered not only what he could observe but all the constellations down to the southern circumpolar ones. At last in 1966 he had it ready: the Celestial Handbook (subtitle An Observer’s Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System). His family, and Thomas’s, helped by collating the two thousand pages, walking round and round a table in Burnham’s cabin. The Lowell authorities, from whom Burnham had expected at least some help in making his book known, would neither publish it nor allow any association with it: its mixture of lyricism with science seemed unprofessional, and it might compromise the institution’s reputation by being riddled with errors. Sky & Telescope‘s founder and editor Charles Federer, in a notoriously misjudged letter, declined to publish the book on the ground that all those typewritten pages would have to be typeset and proofread.

Burnham had to self-publish it. Later he got a contract from Dover, the reprinter of minor classics, which in 1978 published the three-volume edition, keeping the original typescript pages. As the reviews soon proclaimed, it was not only accurately researched but in a class of its own for usefulness, and for literary quality. Did you have an astronomical question? – the answer was “What does Burnham say about it?” Unlike most other good books, it isn’t read once; it’s used, used, and used.

But in 1979 the Lowell proper-motion program, which had stretched from two to twenty-one years, ended. The observatory said it could not afford to keep Burnham on, except as a janitor, which he disdained. He couldn’t face trying to find other work. One might think he could have shone in a planetarium; he was tongue-tied with individual strangers, but had had twenty years of giving guided tours around the observatory. And yes, his sister suggested it, to no avail. He immersed himself in another project, his fantasy The Chronicles of Deriyabar, which grew into a six-part cycle. These tales may have been aimed for children, and his niece loved reading them, but he could not get Dover to publish them – of course, since Dover was only a reprint house. He lived on his royalty checks, but he thought the book should have been priced higher, and then in 1981 the royalties plummeted after an Astronomy Book Club maneuver even more ruthless than the later one I knew of: they offered the three volumes for $2.95! He hoped to get $10,000 from an edition produced for astronomy-eager Japan, and was crushed on receiving only $500. He tried desperate and absurd ways of making money, sold many of his collected objects cheaply. He was increasingly lonely, bitter about his treatment by Lowell and Dover, unable to follow the practical suggestions of his few relatives and friends.

In 1985 he disappeared from his Flagstaff apartment. His relatives searched for him as best they could, after about two months a policeman found him wandering on Newport Beach in California with bare and sun-blistered feet, he had nothing but hallucinations to account for how he had got there. He was brought back to Phoenix by his niece and sister, and they did their best to help him, but things got no better, and he disappeared for good in June 1986. He took almost nothing with him, had given Dover an address to send his royalties to, but with instruction to let no one else know it.

There were ironies throughout his story and more at the end. The enthusiasts for his book had no idea that he had disappeared, most of them assuming that he was the Robert Burnham who was prominently publishing in Astronomy magazine. Balboa Park, where he loitered away his last days, is a valley somewhat back from the sea front of San Diego. In it is the Fleet Space Theater, where the San Diego astronomy club held its meetings; and it was later realized that a shabby figure who had often been present was Robert Burnham, unrecognized. And always silent? No: this old tramp had told the director that he was Robert Burnham and had been disbelieved. His relatives and friends tried to trace him but did not succeed till two years after his death, partly because his name had been misspelled on the death certificate as “Burham.” They didn’t communicate his death to the press because they didn’t realize how newsworthy he was, and so another two years elapsed before Tony Ortega discovered what had happened.

The astronomical establishment honors its distinguished members, and some amateurs, by applying their names to asteroids. Norman Thomas had resolved to get this done for his former co-worker, and had told him so, but found he couldn’t, because there was already an asteroid 834 Burnham. (It was named for Sherburne Wesley Burnham, 1838-1921 – also a diligent amateur most of his longer and stabler life, a court reporter by day and a cataloguer of double stars by night.) The best that could be done for Robert was to fix to asteroid 3467, discovered in 1981, the name Bernheim. This was his forbears’ name before they migrated from Germany.

The best memorial to Bob Burnham would be an updated edition of his great book. We keep referring to it, but all the positions given in it, the coordinates of stars and deep-sky objects, are for “epoch 1950,” which has been superseded as the standard by 2000. (That change was officially made in 1976, but 1950 was the epoch of atlases and catalogues still in use at Burnham’s time.) More importantly, astronomical and astrophysical knowledge has leapt forward. Many of Burnham’s insights are deep ones that will endure, but there are many huge developments that he did not know of. About 1996, a Lowell astronomer, Brian Skiff, then actually living in the cabin that had been Burnham’s, considered the task of overhauling the Celestial Handbook, and had to see that it was too daunting for one person. It could be undertaken by a university, would now be in electronic-founded form, and should preserve the Burnham-written core.

 

16 thoughts on “In memoriam Robert Burnham”

    1. I think Tony Ortega would be the one to ask; he is still an active journalist and you could google him. Let us know anything you find out.

      1. Hi Guy and all…

        I contacted Tony Ortega and Mr. Burnham’s niece Donna Courtney regarding the missing fantasy novels. Tony wrote that it would be up to Donna if they were to be published; and, unfortunately, Donna wrote back with this:

        “Hi Jennifer,

        The work was incomplete, 4 volumes finished out of what was to be 7 volumes. I read it back in the early 1980’s but I do not have a copy. I thought my mom had a copy, but when she passed away in 2013 I didn’t find it among her belongings.

        Donna”

        1. That is bad news. If only it could be found, it could be published – if necessary, these days, in an online and/or print-on-demand format. If the family cannot find it, just possibly there’s someone else who may have seen it and may have a clue to where there’s a copy. How about you write a letter to Sky & Telescope with a view to finding whether there’s any such among their readers?

          1. I hope that Burnham’s novel can be found and published. Sky and Telescope seems like a good place to put out an appeal. But in these days of the world wide web and a certain popular search engine that claims to be able to find anything in milliseconds, it is easy to forget that the vast majority of human expression is lost forever.

  1. I also want to thank you for this rich and moving memorial. I knew of the basic story of his life, but it is so sad I can scarcely believe it. I have used the Celestial Handbook for nearly 30 years and still love it. I think, and hope, I paid full price for it. Thanks again.

  2. Regarding the Burnham memorial at Lowell Observatory…I headed up that effort (with a lot of help) back in 2006. I documented the process on our p-base here: http://www.pbase.com/polakis/rbjm
    Regarding Frank’s comment on the scratch on the plaque…For some reason it was moved up the “Pluto Walk” a few yards a couple winters ago. Along with the massive basalt it was set into, it weighed a half of a ton or so. I think the backhoe was used to move it causing the damage. I was sad to see it like that but I can positively state it was NOT intentional. I think Burnham was blessed and lucky in getting an astronomer position without a college degree. The work he was hired to do was finished. The folks at Lowell are all good people, everyone of them. There’s no way the plaque was scratch intentionally and I know that Mr. Burnham would totally back me up on that. We made a little scholarship with the remaining donations for the plaque; the person who won it goes to NAU and the great ending to that story is that she volunteers at Lowell doing outreach.

    1. Jennifer, thank you for this additional information; I’m ten days late in “approving
      ” it because of being away on a journey. There are two sides to almost every story. I think we could say both that Burnham was lucky to get the job at Lowell, and Lowell was lucky to get Burnham, but that both got some problems along with the luck.

  3. December 10, 2014

    Post to Guy Ottewell’s twitter account about Robert Burnham.

    Guy,

    Thank you for this post. I had read some of this sad history before. In addition to some good basic astronomy (dated though it is, I still have students use this books in conjunction with online data bases in intro astronomy labs), Burnham introduced me to ancient Chinese poetry – including my favorite, Tao Chien (Tao Yuan Ming in Burnham’s text), the gentle farmer and former public official who sits in his garden of three paths and five willows.

    Some of the translations that Burnham uses are those of Kenneth Rexroth – a poet who should still be read (and should be remembered for more than just the organizer of the famous Six Gallery reading in San Francisco – and Kerouac’s limited caricature in “The Dharma Bums”).

    Can the full 37-page self-interview be found anywhere? (I’m going to look.) I am very tempted to read it (like Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill” – written after the death of Dylan Thomas, and which was never intended for publication).

    Again, thank you for remembering Robert Burnham.

    All the best,
    Doug Fowler

  4. Guy,

    Thank you for this post. I had read some of this sad history before. In addition to some good basic astronomy (dated though it is, I still have students use this books in conjunction with online data bases in intro astronomy labs), Burnham introduced me to ancient Chinese poetry – including my favorite, Tao Chien (Tao Yuan Ming in Burnham’s text), the gentle farmer and former public official who sits in his garden of three paths and five willows.

    Some of the translations that Burnham uses are those of Kenneth Rexroth – a poet who should still be read (and should be remembered for more than just the organizer of the famous Six Gallery reading in San Francisco – and Kerouac’s limited caricature in “The Dharma Bums”).

    Can the full 37-page self-interview be found anywhere? (I’m going to look.) I am very tempted to read it (like Rexroth’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill” – written after the death of Dylan Thomas, and which was never intended for publication).

    Again, thank you for remembering Robert Burnham.

    All the best,
    Doug Fowler

  5. I recently visited Lowell Observatory (Sept 2014). There is a small plaque honoring Burnham. It’s been badly scratched; I don’t know if the damage was intentional or not.

  6. A very affecting biography.

    It’s depressing to reflect how similar this is to other prominent astronomical “amateurs” (in the unpaid sense only). British “Meteor Man” W F Denning lived much of his later life in virtual poverty, and died an elderly recluse ridiculed by the youths who lived nearby, for example, yet he featured in H G Wells’ “War of the Worlds” of 1898 as “our greatest authority on meteorites”.

    I get the impression Burnham may have had undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome – a mind of high-precision accuracy, fixated on a particular topic within very defined bounds (science yes, poetry fine, astrology not), inability to take advice and problems interacting with the world generally, for instance.

    Makes me glad I paid what was then an expensive price (with import duties) for my three volumes of Burnham’s Handbooks back in the late ’70s. Never regretted it.

  7. What a phenomenal story: enlightening, tragic, incredible. I ordered Burnham’s Celestial Handbook 20 years ago and am glad now that I paid a normal price for the book. Giving the three volumes away for $3 was tantamount to highway robbery of this poor man.

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