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ROBERT BURNHAM JR. - AMERICAN ASTRONOMER - A BIOGRAPHY

BRIDGEPORT, WV (S-M) - When the editors here at the Starry Mirror want information about a particular object in the night sky, more often than not we grab one of the three volumes of Burnham's Celestial Handbook. This set of books is like no other, and has become a standard in the astronomical community.

 

But the story of any book begins with an author, and Robert Burnham Jr. was an author like no other. Over the course of more than a decade, he created more than 2000 pages which have no equal in astronomical literature. Yet, the success of the book brought him little, and he died in complete obscurity.

 

Robert Burnham Jr. was a shy child, with many interests throughout high school such as astronomy, treasure hunting, and archaeology. He built a laboratory onto the back of his parent's house in Arizona, and after high school he seemed content to do nothing but work in his lab. Uncle Sam soon had other plans for him, and Burnham spent four years in the Air Force as a radar operator. Upon returning home, he went back to his lab and focused on astronomy. It was then that he began the massive task of compiling the Handbook.

 

The Handbook began as just scribbles in a notebook, detailing Burnham's observations with his homemade telescopes. But on the night of October 18, 1957, Burnham, who had only a high-school education, would set out on the path which would make him a professional astronomer. On that night, Burnham leaned a new homemade telescope against the porch railing of his parent's house and began observing. At 10:30 pm, he found something - a small patch of light which was not supposed to be there.

 

Burnham dispatched telegrams to Lowell Observatory and Harvard. Soon, the comet was confirmed and Burnham's name was attached to it. In the age of Sputnik, Burnham's discovery made Arizona headlines and he was soon visited by Senator Barry Goldwater, who presented Burnham with an antique telescope which had been in his family for generations.

 

Not resting on his laurels, Burnham found another comet three months later. By that time, he had come to the attention of administrators at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Lowell was about to undertake a study of the proper motion of stars in the Sun's neighborhood, and the observatory needed someone cheap but able to do the work of scanning thousands of photographic plates. It was decided that Burnham was the man for the job. In a field where most have advanced degrees from prestigious colleges, the amateur had turned professional.

 

Along with co-worker Norman Thomas, Burnham would spend the next twenty years on the proper motion survery. He lived in a cabin at the observatory and spent almost all his free time working on the Handbook. By 1967, the Handbook was ready to publish. Burnham self-published the book and it received rave reviews, though he likened the task to publishing the Encyclopaedia Britannica from his kitchen table.

 

The handbook was a marvel. Not just a listing of tables of charts, it contained legendary information from cultures worldwide, poetry, and personal anecdotes. It was a marvelous work and virtually everything one needed to know about the sky could be found in its 2100 pages.

 

In 1977, Burnham approached Dover Publishing about a possible deal to publish the book. Soon the book was available in a 3-volume set, at a cost of just $7.95 per volume. Burnham's sad life as a published author was just beginning, as the price of the books was far below what would have been expected. Still, the books generated a small income for him for the first couple of years they were available.

 

In 1979, funding for the Lowell Proper Motion Survey was withdrawn, and Burnham was advised to seek other employment. Despite ample warning, he made no preparations and when his job ended, the only option he had available was to become janitor at the observatory. Burnham attempted to convince the observatory administration to let him become a tour guide and publicity person, but they refused.

 

Soon the unemployed Burnham was living in a large apartment in Phoenix which he could not afford. Dover had struck a deal with the Astronomy Book Club to sell the 2100-page Handbook for just $2.95, and Burnham's royalty checks collapsed. He became increasingly obsessed with money, and lost some of what he had in pyramid schemes. His situation worsened until one day in July 1985 he disappeared completely.

 

His sisters went looking for him in the desert, at a spot where he was known to hunt for treasure. They found his VW van and metal detector but there was not sign of Burnham.

 

Seven weeks later, in Newport Beach, California, a police officer noticed a man wandering aimlessly along a beach. Robert Burnham had been found. He was sunburned and in poor health, and returned home with his sister where he recounted the story of what had happened to him.

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