Eric Burgess:
Manchester's First Rocket Man

by Kevin J. Kilburn., F.R.A.S.

Over sixty years ago, the possibility of interplanetary flight was a novel and audacious idea. Yet in the northwest of England there were those who believed that not only could space flight be achieved but at some date in the not too distant future, would be achieved. One such individual was Eric Burgess whose far-sightedness and enthusiasm for astronautics was second to none. He was undoubtedly Manchester's first Rocket Man

In October 1935 Eric Burgess (1920-2005), became a Junior Member of the Manchester Astronomical Society [1]. A year later, in June 1936, this sixteen year old founded the Manchester Interplanetary Society with its headquarters at his home 683, Ashton New Road, Clayton, Manchester [2]. The M.I.S. had seventeen members, including two girls, and had an average age of a little over 17. Its aim was to study the new science of astronautics and rocketry. On Saturday, 5th December 1936, the M.I.S. met at Clayton Vale, three miles east of the city centre, to launch nine solid-fuelled rockets. This not only attracted the attention of local and national newspapers but also unfortunately, at a launching four months later, attracted the attention of the police following a minor accident in which two people were slightly injured [3]. Under the Explosives Act of 1876 it was illegal to make explosives without a license. Burgess successfully argued in court that rockets were not explosives but were propulsive devices. However to comply with public safety requirements further experiments, with single and two-stage rockets and with various guidance control methods including spin-stabilisation and radio control, were conducted on uninhabited moorlands fifteen miles east of Manchester, above the town of Glossop, Derbyshire.

Burgess's exploits earned him the nickname "Rocket Man" in newspaper articles. As a member of both the fledgling British Interplanetary Society and the M.I.S., he gave many talks to the Manchester Astronomical Society, the first being on 3 February 1937 at the Central Library. He went on to promote national interest in astronautics and to describe, with incredible pre-perception and technical insight, space technology that we now take for granted.

The history of the British Interplanetary Society is similar to that of the British Astronomical Society and the North-Western Branch and its own successor, the Manchester Astronomical Society. Both involved, in their formative years, the cities of Liverpool and Manchester.

Phillip E. Cleator, living at Wallasey on the Wirral Peninsular, founded the British Interplanetary Society in October 1933 [4]. Its original headquarters were in Liverpool and Cleator was its first president. Three years later, following dissatisfaction with the way in which the B.I.S. was being managed and after a temporary and unsuccessful attempt at takeover by others within the society, Cleator was forced to resign as its president. He continued to give his full support to the B.I.S. but the running of the society was gradually switched to London after October 1936. Professor A.M.Low became its president upon the final transfer of the B.I.S. headquarters to London by the end of that year [5].

The society initially had a peripatetic existence and one of the London venues was the 'Mason's Arms', or 'The Spaceshippers' Arms' as the London members came to call it, in Maddox Street. This was no doubt the origin of the scenario used by Arthur C Clarke in his science fiction anthology 'Tales from the White Hart'. Clarke was one of the most active of the London members and although slightly older than Burgess their interest in space research followed remarkably similar paths during the 1940's and 50's. In the last quarter of the 20th century and certainly since the success in 1968 of Stanley Kubrik's '2001 a Space Odyssey', Clarke's name has become increasingly synonymous with science 'fact-ion'. Burgess, meanwhile, concentrated largely on documenting the role of NASA in solar system exploration by robotic planetary probes.

In the immediate pre-war years, membership of the B.I.S. grew steadily. The Paisley Rocketeers Society in Scotland, the Leeds Rocket Society and then a group in Hastings became affiliated. Others soon joined. In Manchester, a breakaway group from the MIS, the Manchester Astronautical Association lead by Burgess, was formed in 1937 because he felt that little could be gained from launching model rockets without enormous financial support which was unlikely to be forthcoming. The future of rocketry and astronautics was still some way off.

As war loomed, the July 1939 issue of the B.I.S.'s 'BULLETIN' stated that, 'Owing to the crisis which may delay the issuing of the Bulletin, it is possible that all B.I.S. activities may be suspended and headquarters may be moved. In the meantime we must ask all members to refrain from writing to us unnecessarily. We must also apologise for any unavoidable delays in replying to letters already received.' A short while later members were informed that the activities of the Society were being suspended until the end of hostilities although many of the committee members still kept in touch on an informal basis, if war duties and the London blitz permitted.

However, this state of affairs was unacceptable to the Manchester Astronautical Association. Lead by Burgess, then still in his early twenties, it remained for Manchester to carry the 'interplanetary torch' throughout the war years, blitz or not. His youthful interest became a military duty and later a professional career. As a member of the Royal Air Force in World War II, he helped analyze Germany's V-2 rocket program.

Burgess, a serving airman based in the Midlands, printed and distributed a mimeographed journal, 'SPACEWARDS', that appeared every three months throughout those difficult times. Although he kept in touch with Clarke and Cleator, Burgess had no contact with the other BIS council members until the close of hostilities in Europe. Eric subsequently linked with Kenneth Gatland to form the Combined British Astronautical Societies, which by 1944 had about 200 members. The Manchester Astronautical Association became its northwestern branch.

Gatland, Clarke, Cleator and Burgess worked together to forge a national society and decided that the name 'British Interplanetary Society' should be used to provide continuity back to 1934. They also made contact with Len Carter. Carter and Burgess were both qualified in company law and worked together with the aim of registering the B.I.S. as a company limited by guarantee to which end Eric Burgess was a signatory to the Memorandum and Articles of Association.

By midsummer 1944, Eric Burgess and Ken Gatland had completely restructured the C.B.A.S. and B.I.S. members; P.E.Cleator, A.C.Clarke and R.A.Smith, together with officials acting for the C.B.A.S., circulated a policy document, which contained plans for the founding of a postwar interplanetary society. Later, in the same year, Burgess and Arthur Clarke met one rainy day at Warwick Castle, mid-way between their respective RAF bases, to discuss plans to start a national astronautical society [6].

As the war in Europe drew to a close, Ralph Smith got in touch with all pre-war members of the Society notifying them of a meeting to be convened by A.M.Low, the pre-war BIS president. The meeting was held on 13 June 1945 with three members of the 1939 Council; A.M. Low (presiding), P.E.Cleator and Smith, and seven other members from those present; C.Bein, L.J.Carter, W.E.Gillings, H.E.Ross, L.R.Shepherd, R.C.G.Slazenger and Mrs J.Temple. The committee resolved that the first step to be taken was to establish the Society as a proper legal entity, incorporating it in the manner required. This put the onus on Len Carter, who, having the necessary experience, undertook to draft a constitution and took the initial steps to legalise the Society [7].

On 25 September 1945, a special joint meeting of the B.I.S. and C.B.A.S. was called in London to wind up the old societies and transfer all interests, assets, etc. to the new BIS Ltd. While there were many CBAS members at the meeting, there was only a handful of old B.I.S. members: Smith, Ross, Clarke, and one or two others. The meeting was dominated by the C.B.A.S., chaired by Eric Burgess (C.B.A.S. President 1942-1945), but there were a sufficient number of strong B.I.S. characters present to keep up the interests of the society. Of the outcome, it can be said that the least savoury aspect was the unceremonious and discourteous dumping of Professor A.M. Low and Phil Cleator (in absentia). The question of the title of a new amalgamated Society was debated and it was ultimately accepted that a new national society should be incorporated under the name of the British Interplanetary Society Ltd. Len Carter was already well advanced in the legal steps in incorporating the society in that name [8]. Eric Burgess was the first to sign the new member's register and he became its first Chairman of Council for the first post-war session, 1945-1946, to be succeeded by Arthur C Clarke in 1946. Clarke became the first B.I.S. President in 1947.

In October 1945, Arthur C Clarke published his seminal paper describing the enormous potential of using manned orbiting space stations to act as 'extra-terrestrial relays' for radio and TV broadcasting [9]. Eric Burgess followed this with an article published in the November 1946 edition of Aeronautics proposing to use automatic robotic satellites in geostationary orbits for telecommunications and for meteorological and other purposes [10]. Notwithstanding Arthur Clarke's insight into global telecommunications, it is the technology first suggested in Burgess's articles, 'Into Space' and later, in 'The establishment and use of artificial satellites' [11] that best describes modern communications satellites [12]. Burgess's important contribution to the ideological notion of space-born telecommunications was acknowledged in 1980 at the opening of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington by an exhibit showing his solar-heated, turbine-powered, satellite. As Burgess later freely acknowledged, when satellites did go into orbit a decade later their solar power generation used much simpler technology than he envisaged. A plaque honouring Burgess' efforts toward space exploration is displayed in the Smithsonian Institution.

Although now taken for granted and probably forgotten, NASA credits Eric Burgess, along with Charles A Cross, for the introduction of the term, 'interplanetary probe', first described in a joint paper, 'The Martian Probe', read to the North-Western Branch of the British Interplanetary Society in September 1952 [13], [14]. The paper explained how to calculate the trajectory of a missile traveling 34 million miles to Mars. According to Burgess, in an interview shortly before his death, many considered the idea nutty, but his vindication came when the first American probe, Mariner IV, flew by Mars in 1965. Ironically, in an e-mail communication, in February 2000, Eric told me that when writing the 'Martian Probe' he had based the paper around the idea of using the Jodrell Bank telescope, then at the design stage, as the receiver of radio signals from Mars. The Lovell Telescope was indeed used, in February 2000, in an unsuccessful attempt to detect signals from NASAs lost Martian Polar Lander.

On leaving the RAF, Burgess became secretary to a Manchester-based group of companies making textile machinery. He continued to lecture and write a great deal about space travel and in the early 1950s he spent many hours photographing the moon with the instruments at the Godlee Observatory, Manchester. After marrying and moving to Broken Cross, Macclesfield, he also spent much time using the 18-inch Newtonian telescope at Jodrell Bank with Gilbert Fielder, for lunar photography. The newly formed Salford Astronomical Society removed this telescope in the early 1970s for use at their Chasely Field Observatory.

His interest in promoting communications satellites also recognised that space research was not going to develop in the UK. In September 1956 Eric and his wife, Lilian (Billie), moved to California. He became an American citizen in 1962 and moved to Occidental to get away from the Southern California smog. He became a successful part-time science journalist and writer on space exploration, and an executive with several high-tech companies. In the years following the Apollo moon flights, he wrote or co-authored several popular science books on NASA's exploration of the planets; Mercury, Mars and Jupiter, by unmanned space probes, enjoying a close relationship with many well-known space scientists.

In the NASA publication, 'PIONEER, first to Jupiter, Saturn and beyond' [15], Eric described having dinner in November 1971 with Charles Cross, and Dr. Carl Sagan, director of the Laboratory of Planetary Studies, Cornell University, visiting NASAs Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena. Charles Cross was an old friend of Eric, an expert amateur lunar cartographer and former ICI technical manager, who did pioneering work in the development of polyethylene. He lived in Northwich, Cheshire, and was later to be employed by NASA in mapping Mercury, Mars and the moons of Jupiter. [See endnote.]

That evening the topic of conversation centred on Pioneer 10 then nearing completion at TRW Systems. At that time few people knew that this would be the first spacecraft destined to leave the solar system and Burgess suggested to Sagan that a visual message should also accompany the vehicle. Earlier spacecraft had carried plaques containing the names of politicians and manufacturers of the spacecraft's components. Eric thought that a message from humankind, not from elitist individuals, should be sent. His idea had come earlier when he had been one of a group of science journalists, including Richard Hoagland, invited to JPL to await the arrival at Mars of the first orbiter spacecraft, Mariner 9. They were attending another invitation, that of TRW Systems, Redondo Beach, to see the Pioneer 10 spacecraft under final test before being shipped to the Kennedy Space Centre. Although Eric had mentioned his idea of a message from the people of Earth to an engineer at TRW he was given a blank look as though he was out of his mind!

So was born the idea of fixing a gold-anodised, aluminium plaque to the spacecraft [16]. Carl Sagan was not optimistic that NASA would go along with it [17]. Under extreme secrecy Carl Sagan and Frank Drake designed the plaque, depicting a man and a woman, and set against a diagram of the craft for scale and various other devices to show the origin of the probe. Linda Salzman Sagan, Carl's wife, prepared the final and somewhat controversial artwork. The idea was then presented to NASA.

Eric heard nothing more until mid December when he was in Boston. There he met Homer E. Newell, one of NASAs Associate Administrators, and was told that the plaque was going to be on the spacecraft but there would be absolutely no publicity until launch. Here was Eric, with the inside story of mankind's first message to the stars, yet unable to publish.

Pioneer 10 has now [2005] left the solar system and is below the plane of the planetary system, cruising ever outwards into interstellar space. It carries the now-famous plaque attached to the antenna support struts, in a position where it is protected from erosion by interstellar dust. At the time of writing, the great dish of the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank, not yet completed when Burgess emigrated to America, still listens to Pioneer's increasingly weak signal for calibration purposes in its detection of extremely distant radio signals in its joint observations with Arecibo Radio Observatory in project Phoenix, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. A similar, Burgess inspired plaque, is attached to Pioneer 11 and is leaving the solar system in the opposite direction.

Eric Burgess last visited the UK in 1978, when he addressed the Manchester Astronomical Society at its 75th anniversary meeting. He was then employed as science adviser in the making of the James Bond movie, Moonraker. He was made an Honorary Member of the MAS in 1957, for his pioneering work in astronautics but he justly deserves to be more widely recognised as one of Britain's first rocket men.

He died, age 84, in March 2005 at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital after a short bout of bronchitis and pneumonia having lived in Occidental, California, for 29 years. Eric and Billie were married for 58 years. She suffered from Alzheimer's disease in recent years and until he became ill, Eric drove to the Sebastopol care home where she lived twice a day to help care for her. The couple raised three children, but lost a son, Stephen, at age 30. His wife Lilian, daughter, Janis Arredondo of Roseville, his son, Howard Burgess of Occidental, five grandchildren and six great-grandchildren survive him. Eric Burgess is buried at Sebastopol Memorial Lawn, Southern California.

Burgess wrote 25 books on exploring the planets of the solar system and edited 25 more. He worked on several NASA projects and for seven Southern California high-tech firms. Eric Burgess loved figure skating, and into his 80s skated at the Redwood Ice Arena in Santa Rosa. According to his daughter, his legacy will be his positive vision for mankind. Always reach for the stars; whatever your dreams are, reach for them. That was always his outlook right up to the end. [18]


On behalf of the MAS, the author would like to thank Mr. Eric Burgess who, via e-mail from his home in California, read the original version of this manuscript and provided a wealth of first-hand information and editorial comment. Also Sir Arthur C Clarke who, via e-mail from Sri Lanka, confirmed that Eric Burgess was indeed a leading light in pioneering British space research.

Also, thanks go to the British Interplanetary Society for providing copies of papers relating to the early years of that Society.

Endnote re Charles Arthur Cross:

In December 1981, just before New Year, I went into a newly opened secondhand bookshop in Macclesfield late one afternoon. It was already getting dark. The shop had opened a couple of weeks before Christmas and sported a good assortment of astronomy books but one in particular caught my eye, 'Flight to Mercury' by Bruce Murry and Eric Burgess. On the inside flyleaf, in black ink, were written these words, "June 1977. To Charles Cross, who shares the special delight in exploring other worlds. Bruce Murry." Bruce Murry was then Director of Jet Propulsion Labs, Pasadena. I immediately realised the importance of what I had found. Charles had died the previous year. I had met him some years before and knew of his work to illustrate and map the newly discovered detail photographed on the surfaces of Mercury and Mars during the 1970s. This was one of his books.

I went to the counter to buy the book and the proprietor said, "Oh, if you are interested in the moon (sic),, I've got some more pictures." He then brought out some Mariner 10 photographs of Mercury, some mounted as mosaics on black card and some overlaid with hand-drawn maps on acetate sheets. He very kindly gave me a picture as he took my money for the book. But I had seen a goldmine in front of me!

I now had a problem; confess my interest in astronomy and pay the price, or play ignorant but curious. I chose the latter and quickly drove home to collect a few old books that I hoped could be exchanged for the pictures. It worked! I got all the Mercury pictures and overlays that obviously Charles had been using to do his maps for NASA and his and Patrick Moore's book about Mercury. I also got a cardboard cylinder addressed to him, dated 17 January 1980, from the Rand Corporation at Santa Monica, containing photographic representations of hand -drawn maps of Jupiter's Galilean moons. It is possible that these were proof copies of Charles' maps that he had done for Rand and the Jet Propulsion Laboratories. Another cylinder contained a map of Mars that Charles Cross has prepared and had been published by Rand.

The sad thing about this is that Charles had died in early 1980 and his wife, Margaret, the following year about six months before I discovered these pictures. His library, which must have been considerable, had been sold or otherwise disposed of and some items had turned up in a back street bookshop in Macclesfield. It is a great pity that his legacy was not donated to the British Astronomical Association of which he had been a member for many years. We may never know what was lost but at least something was saved.

There two curious riders to this story. I then lived in Bollington, three miles from Macclesfield and twenty from Northwich. Bollington has relatively few shops but in about 1990, a new delicatessen opened in the village. 'Pernies' offered to do home deliveries and catering for parties. Enquiries were made and one evening the shop owner arrived on the doorstep with a mouth-watering menu. As she was leaving she noticed my astronomical books. Her late uncle had also been an astronomer. Did I know him, Charles Cross?

In November 2005 the fiancé of Charles Cross's only son, Nigel, e-mailed me having read this account of Burgess and the reference to Nigel's father. Communications were lost when my computer crashed and I lost her e-mail but in late October 2007 Nigel's new wife, now Jenny Cross, e-mailed me again. A phonecall from Jenny a few days later made arrangements for us to meet at the Royal Hotel, in Hayfield, Derbyshire. After marrying and living in Liverpool for 40 years, Nigel's second marriage to Jenny, a former school friend in Northwich, resulted in them setting up home in Chinley in 2006, only a handful of miles from where I now live in New Mills…yet another coincidence!

On Sunday 4 November I met with Nigel and Jenny to show them the book, photographs and maps of Mercury that had been such an important part of Charles Cross's interest in the terrestrial planets in the months before his death in 1980. For Nigel it was a rather emotional meeting. We parted after two hours, promising to keep in touch and with me retaining 'Flight to Mercury' and Nigel taking the maps and photographs that had belonged to his father. After more than a quarter-century in my custody, they have now been returned to their rightful owner.


Kevin J Kilburn FRAS
Manchester Astronomical Society, November 2007.


[1] Minutes of the Manchester Astronomical Society. Vol. 6.

[2] E. Burgess, 'Progress of Astronautics in Great Britain'. Journal of the American Rocket Society, June-September 1946

[3] BIS Bulletin, 25 April 1937.

[4] PE Cleator, 'Matters of No Moment', J.B.I.S., Vol.9 No2. March 1950.

[5] HE Ross, 'Gone With the Efflux', J.B.I.S. Vol.9 No3. May 1950.

[6] E.Burgess, 'The Smaller British Societies Devoted to Astronautics and Interplanetary Flight'.
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 1984.

[7] Letter from BIS Secretary, S.A. Jones to KJK, 27 November 2000.

[8] Ibid.

[9] A.C.Clarke, 'Extra Terrestrial Relays'. Wireless World, October 1945.

[10] E.Burgess, 'Into Space'. Aeronautics, November 1946.

[11] E.Burgess, 'The establishment and use of artificial satellites'. Aeronautics, September 1949.

[12] William R. Corliss. 'Scientific Satellites'. NASA SP-133. 1967. p40-41.

[13] H.T.Wells, S.H.Whiteley and C.E.Karegeannes. 'The Origins of NASA Names'. NASA SP-4402. 1976.

[14] E.Burgess and Charles A Cross, 'The Martian Probe'. Aeronautics, November 1952.

[15] R.O.Fimmel, J van Allen, E Burgess.'Pioneer, first to Jupiter, Saturn, and Beyond.' NASA SP-446. 1980.

[16] Carl Sagan. Science, 175 (1972) 881. "…the initial suggestion to include some message aboard Pioneer 10 was made by Eric Burgess and Richard Hoagland…"

[17] Carl Sagan. The Washington Post, Feb 25, 1972. In an interview regarding the plaque.

[18] Amanda Burgess, Eric's grand-daughter, now lives in her grandfather's home and has custody of his library and collection of memorabilia. E-mails to Kilburn. May 2007.

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