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Sky Writer

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"He was given an honorable discharge and then came back to Prescott to go back to doing nothing," Courtney says.

Until, that is, his mother heard about an opening for a shipping clerk at Thunderbird Fashions, a Western clothing manufacturer.

"They checked applicants for school records, so he got it hands down. He was their best shipping clerk, ever," Courtney says. "It didn't make sense. He was so capable. I told him he should have stayed in the military. It fit him because the military took care of the mundane decisions and allowed him free time to pursue his interests."

But Burnham seemed content. His nowhere job kept his mother happy and put change in his pocket, and his nights were free for the passion that was taking up more and more of his time: his Celestial Survey, as he called it.

He had conceived of it shortly after he returned from his assignment in the Air Force. Using a small refractor telescope, he became frustrated that the star charts available at the time came with so little information about all the intriguing symbols dotting the maps.

Here were thousands of objects of interest in the sky--multiple star systems, stars that changed brightness, clusters of stars, nebulae and distant galaxies--and little information about any of them. So Burnham began making his own notes about them, organizing the notes by constellation and recording them in loose-leaf notebooks which grew and multiplied.

By the end of 1957, he was using a larger telescope of his own construction, he'd made news as the discoverer of a comet, and his survey had grown to fill six notebooks and 1,200 pages.

And that's when, despite his prediction to his sister, he indeed became a professional astronomer.


Henry Giclas has seen many people come and go in the 56 years he's been associated with Lowell Observatory. Yet the 87-year-old still goes to his office there every weekday, and it's no trouble for him to remember the details of hiring Robert Burnham.

"Anybody that spends a lot of time out looking for comets, first of all he has to have a lot of patience, and he has to want to take the time to do it. And so I just figured that anyone who would spend that much time would make a pretty good observer for a routine job."

An article without a byline which appeared February 3, 1958, in the Courier described how Burnham got the post: "H.L. Giclas, of the Lowell Observatory, passing through Prescott, took Burnham to lunch, and invited him to visit the Flagstaff observatory over the following weekend. Soon after he returned home, he received the offer of the position in the observatory. The camera studies he will make are expected to take a two year period, Burnham said. . . . He will begin his work on Feb. 10."

Courtney remembers her mother telling Burnham: "If you turn this down, you're crazy."

"I'm not going to turn it down," he answered.
He accepted the job at $6,000 a year with the likelihood that it would last only the two years of the project.

Then, Giclas says, the entire deal nearly fell through.
The February 3 Courier article infuriated the astronomers at Lowell. Always sensitive about Lowell's reputation, they did not appreciate that Burnham had spoken about his upcoming job without the observatory's approval.

"We had a bit of trouble about that article in the Courier. His mother, you know, was a kind of jackleg reporter for it," Giclas says.

"He damned near didn't get the job. We thought he'd written that article." They changed their minds, says Giclas, after a contrite Burnham convinced them that he hadn't written it.

"It was his mother. When I offered him that job, his mother went bonkers and wrote up a big story about how he was going to do a proper motion program at the Lowell Observatory when the guy didn't even know what a proper motion was."

It wasn't the first time the observatory had hired a skilled amateur on the cheap for repetitive work that better-paid professionals might have scorned.

In 1929, a young Kansas farmer sent the observatory detailed drawings of Jupiter and Mars that he'd made with a homemade telescope. Lowell astronomers were sufficiently impressed that they hired the young man, named Clyde Tombaugh, to help with an ambitious, but tedious, project.

The search for Planet X.
The observatory's founder, Percival Lowell, had predicted that a massive ninth planet might be found beyond Neptune. Lowell had died in 1916, but his colleagues were eager to validate his Planet X theory. It might help counter the observatory's association with Lowell's more well-known legacy, his infamous and illusory Martian "canals," and rescue the observatory from a second-class status.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega