Robert Burnham Jr.

Robert Burnham Jr. (June 16, 1931 – March 20, 1993) was an American astronomer, discoverer of comets and the minor planet 3397 Leyla. He is best known for writing the classic three-volume Burnham's Celestial Handbook.[1][2] The main-belt asteroid 3467 Bernheim was named in his honor.[3]

Early work

Asteroids discovered: 1[4]
3397 Leyla[1] December 8, 1964
  1. 1 with Norman G. Thomas
Comets discovered: 6
C/1957 U1 (Latyshev-Wild-Burnham)[1] October 18, 1957
C/1958 D1 (Burnham 1958a)[2] 1958
56P/Slaughter-Burnham[3] January 27, 1959
  1. 1 with Latyshev
  2. 2 with Paul Wild
  3. 3 with Charles D. Slaughter

Burnham was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1931, the son of Robert Sr. and Lydia. His family moved to Prescott, Arizona, in 1940, and he graduated from high school there in 1949. That was the culmination of his formal education. Always a shy person, he had few friends, never married, and spent most of his time observing with his home-built telescope.[2]

In the fall of 1957 he received considerable local publicity when he discovered his first comet. This led to his being hired by Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1958 to work on a survey of stellar proper motion using a blink comparator. While Burnham was working at Lowell, he and his co-worker, Norman G. Thomas, discovered five more comets (including 56P/Slaughter-Burnham), and numerous asteroids.[2]

Burnham's Celestial Handbook

Burnham's Celestial Handbook (1978 Dover Edition)

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

In addition to his regular duties at the observatory, Burnham spent almost all of his free time working on the Celestial Handbook. His writing and his book were never officially supported by Lowell Observatory. Subtitled "An Observer's Guide to the Universe Beyond the Solar System", the 2,138 page Burnham's Celestial Handbook combines a lengthy introduction to astronomy with catalog information for every constellation in the sky. Hundreds of photographic plates, tables, charts, and diagrams are included along with a vast amount of scientific and observing information, star lore, history, and even a little poetry. Thousands of stars and deep sky objects visible in small telescopes are covered in meticulous detail.[2]

Originally self-published in a loose-leaf serial format beginning in 1966, and with a revised edition by Dover Publications in 1978, the Celestial Handbook was well reviewed in amateur astronomy magazines and became a best seller in a very specialized field. It is still in print and is considered to be a classic in the literature of amateur astronomy.[2]

After Lowell

In April 1979, the year after his book was published by Dover, Burnham received notice that the proper motion survey would soon be completed and that the observatory could not afford to keep him on in the position he had long held. Despite months of warning, he failed to make other arrangements and, after twenty-one years at Lowell, his job ended in December of that year. Unwilling to take the only position that was offered to him, that of janitor at the observatory, he left.[2]

Burnham was never able to recover personally, professionally, or financially after he lost the job at Lowell. Over the next few years, while sales of the Celestial Handbook were rapidly growing, Burnham's personal circumstances were steadily worsening. His shyness increased and he shunned all publicity, becoming even more reclusive. He bickered often with Dover about royalties and about possible new editions or translations of his book.[2]

He also seemed to become more bitter and depressed, isolating himself even further from his few friends and his family. Beginning in 1985, Burnham lived for a time in Phoenix, Arizona, but in May 1986 he left Phoenix and dropped out of sight completely, informing no one but his publisher of his whereabouts.[2]

Later years

Despite being the author of a successful book, Burnham spent the last years of his life in poverty and obscurity in San Diego, California, selling his paintings of cats at Balboa Park. His many devoted readers were completely unaware of his personal circumstances, in large part, because most people assumed that a different and unrelated Robert Burnham, who was an editor at Astronomy magazine, was the author of Burnham's Celestial Handbook.[2]

The real author died destitute and alone at the age of sixty-one. His family did not learn about his death (apparently by his choice) until two years later and didn't report it to the press even then because they were unaware of his stature in the amateur astronomy community.[2]

After his death, it was realized that he had often attended programs presented by the San Diego Astronomy Association (at the Ruben H. Fleet Space Theater in Balboa Park) without anyone recognizing him. In spite of the tragedy of his later years, Burnham continues to be remembered by a generation of deep sky observers for his unique Celestial Handbook.

Norm Thomas, Burnham's former co-worker at Lowell Observatory, had told Burnham that he planned to name an asteroid after him. Since an asteroid already carried the name Burnham (834 Burnhamia, named after the unrelated 19th century astronomer Sherburne Wesley Burnham), Thomas chose the name Bernheim instead, for the Burnham family's original surname in Germany. 3467 Bernheim was discovered on September 26, 1981.[2]

The cremated remains of Burnham are interred at the Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, California.[2]

In 2009 a memorial consisting of a small bronze plaque resembling a page in Burnham's Celestial Handbook was installed on the Pluto Walk at Lowell Observatory.[5]



Burnham's Celestial Handbook was originally self-published in a loose-leaf serial format beginning in 1966; it was issued in hardcover and later paperback in a three-volume, revised and enlarged edition by Dover Publications beginning in 1978.



  1. Jeffrey, Dale (1998). "Robert Burnham Jr.: Gone But Not Forgotten". Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. 92: 18–19. Bibcode:1998JRASC..92...18J. Retrieved 2016-01-11.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Ortega, Tony (1997-09-25). "Sky Writer". Phoenix New Times. Retrieved 2016-01-11.
  3. Schmadel, Lutz D. (2007). Dictionary of Minor Planet Names – (3467) Bernheim. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. p. 290. ISBN 978-3-540-00238-3. Retrieved 14 November 2016.
  4. "Minor Planet Discoverers (by number)". Minor Planet Center. 4 September 2016. Retrieved 14 November 2016.
  5. Dickinson, David (2014-11-12). "Exploring astronomy old and new at the Lowell Observatory". Postmedia News. Retrieved 2016-01-11.


External links

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