Sherburn Wesley Burnham,
Double Star Descendant of Pasco FooteBy Harriet Rockwell
Descendants of Pasco Foote can proudly claim the ninetieth century astronomer, Sherburne Wesley Burnham, as kin.
The story of this self-made man, who was an important contributor to the study of double stars, is an interesting one.
Sherburne Wesley Burnham was born December 12, 1838 in Thetford, Vermont, the son of Marinda Foote and Roswell
S. W. taught himself shorthand and at the age of 18, left home and found a job as a secretary in New York City. When the Civil War broke out, S. W. became a military reporter for the Union Army.
After the war ended, he bought a book about the constellations, which was the beginning of his lifelong devotion to the study of the stars. S. W. moved to Chicago, where he worked as a court reporter by day and observed the stars by night from his backyard with a small telescope.
He also visited the nearby Dearborn observatory which had what was then the world's largest refractor, and eventually bought his own 6inch refractor. S.W. has been described as having extremely good vision, unrivaled powers of concentration, and great selfconfidence; qualities which made him particularly well suited to the study of the stars and to his other hobby, amateur photography.
Friends and colleagues described S.W as a man of keen wit who never failed to see the humorous side of things.
S. W. became well known and respected among astronomers. In 1879, he was hired to assess Mount Hamilton in California as a possible site for the proposed Lick Observatory, which would become the world's first mountaintop observatory, equipped with a 36inch refractor, the world's largest telescope at the time. During the 60 days S.W. was camped on the wilderness summit of Mount Hamilton, he discovered 42 new double stars in the night sky.
Double stars are formed when a rapidly spinning single star splits, forming two stars that revolve around each other. One or both of the resulting companion stars may split again, forming double-double stars. Some pairs of double stars are equal in mass and brightness, but more commonly one is so much larger that its companion is not visible to the naked eye. The stars of some doubles are so far apart that they take thousands of years to orbit one another, while others are so close together that they revolve around each other in just days or even hours. Probably the best known of all double stars is the pair of Alcor and Mizar in
the handle of the Big Dipper.
Upon approval of the Mount Hamilton site, the top thirty feet of the mountain were blasted off with explosives to make a level area for the construction of the Lick Observatory. S.W was part of the staff there for 4 years. Throughout most of his career in astronomy, S. W. supported his family by working as a reporter and did not become a full-time astronomer until 1902.
By 1894, S.W. had discovered 1340 new double stars and had begun the cataloging of all known double stars. When the Yerkes Observatory at the University of Chicago opened in 1897, S. W. joined the staff as a volunteer, continuing his study of double stars with its 40-inch refractor.
In 1902, S.W. retired from his well-paying job at the Chicago District Court and accepted a position at the University. In 1906, S.W published an impressive work in two volumes, Volume One being the "General Catalog of Double Stars Within 121 Degrees of the North Pole" and Volume Two containing a meticulous observation history for each pair.
The Royal Astronromical Society, based in London, England awarded Sherburne Wesley Burnham the Gold Medal given for "outstanding personal research or leadership in astronomy" and in 1874, elected him to fellowship in the society.
Sherburne Wesley Burnham died in 1921. He was "an easy going, predictable man with a Lincoln-esque manner and bearing" and "a father-figure to many young, eager astronomers." He was especially missed by his wife, Mary Cleland, three sons and three daughters.
Wesley Burnham was a sixth great grandson of Pasco Foote, the immigrant (1); Samuel (2); John (3); Samuel (4); Pasco (5); Jacob(6); Elias (7); Marinda (8) who married Roswell O. Burnham, Sherburne Wesley Burnham (9).
Main sources of information for this article: Mount Diablo Astronomical Society; Yerkes Observatory, University of California-Santa Cruz, Royal Astronomical Society, London, England.
Copyright © 1999
Foote Family Association of America
P. O. Box 418, Middlefield, CT 06455
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(Last updated 29 December 2017)