naming Pluto

CNN (and everybody else in the world) is telling the same old story today, under the headline 12 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT PLUTO:

CNN is a big dumdum

I mean, it’s true that she suggested it, but so did about a billion other people.  Why does Venetia get the credit?  Well, I have a theory.

Here, for the record, are some letters and telegrams from just a few of the other folks who had the same idea.

March 17, 1930
Dr. V.M. Slipher
Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff, Ariz.

Dear Sir;

I have read in the paper the account of the finding of the new planet and being interested I would like to suggest the name of Pluto.  I chose this name because I believe this planet is as important as Neptune or Jupiter and deserves the name of the third brother.

Yours very truly,
Ruth van Sickle
Barringer High School


73FN B 23






4 AU D 32 NL



1157 AM


Indianapolis, Ind.
Mar. 16, ’30

Mr. Roger Lowell Putnam,
Dear Sir;

I suggest the name “Pluto” for the new Planet. “Atlas” is inappropriate as are others I have heard. The major planets are all named for the ancient gods. Saturn, the father of the gods, has the most distinctive world and two of his three sons are honored, Jupiter and Neptune, now in all fairness let us give the other, Pluto, his due.

As Pluto was Lord of the dark region of the dead, so this planet so far from the source of light should receive his name. Do not break the beautiful system and catalogue the new world by a name which has no real reason in it and will mean nothing to the future generations. Let us not do something for which we will have to apologize in future.

Geo. P. Kebbe


Yeah.  Constance Lowell had a lot of bad ideas, but her bad ideas for naming the newly discovered Planet X were…the baddest of all.  Here’s her letter to Lowell Observatory director Vesto Slipher, in February 1930:

Dr. Slipher—

Roger Putnam has written me about the intensely interesting observation that you are experiencing—that it may be Planet X I pray.  Mr. Putnam asked me if I had any thoughts about the name.  He said he had thought of “Diana”.

But no.  If it is not to be Lowell or Percival my choice is Zeus.

Zeus being the father of Aries—Aries being identified with Mars—it seemed appropriate—and Dr. Lowell was born in the sign of Aries—it is Dr. Lowell’s planet after all his years of looking for it.  And it is only right that it was his to name after himself and now my right as he is dead and gone, in the Air of the Universe—and he was like a Zeus—

Sin yrs
Const Lowell

The letters began arriving immediately – proud Americans clamoring to hang a moniker on the new world.  Thanks to Antoinette Beiser for scanning a few of these beautiful examples – straight from the gorgeous archives of Lowell Observatory.   Planet Eureka:

And Planet Twelow:

And Planet Burdett, of course!

A fascinating post here braiding together the lives of Clyde Tombaugh, Venetia Burney, and the unusually named Plato Chan.  Born on March 14, 1930, he was supposed to be named Pluto, as it happens — and he would come to his own early fame, as Peter Sieruta points out.  Influences and perturbations indeed!

Plato (Pluto) Chan, winner of the Caldecott at age 12

I’ve seen them myself – the long lists of planetary names proposed by excited Americans in March 1930:

Splendor!  Pax!  Ariel!  Salacia!  Athenia!  Nuevo!  Utopia!  Maximum! Tantalus! Perseus!

And – yes: Pluto.

In fact, Vesto Slipher and the Lowell Observatory staff liked “Minerva” for the new planet, but a prominent asteroid with that label already existed.  Next on their own list of preferences?  Pluto.  As it happened, Pluto was also the second most popular name with the public, going by a tally of those dozens of folks who had been sending eager telegrams since the moment the discovery was announced.

So how did Venetia Burney somehow get credit for Pluto? It’s a cute story, sure. The little girl named a planet!  And she was quick off the mark, no doubt about it – having read the news on the morning of March 14, she (being young, British, and keen) struck upon “Pluto” and mentioned it to her grandfather across the breakfast table.  Her grandfather was a gent with a spectacular moniker of his own – Falconer Madan (!) — and just happened to be a retired librarian from the Bodleian Library.  Old Man Madan mentioned his granddaughter’s proposal to his chum Herbert Hall Turner, professor of astronomy at Oxford — and Turner eventually sent a telegram to Flagstaff suggesting it.

More than a month went by before the planet was officially named.  Vesto Slipher (speaking of spectacular monikers) and his staff consulted with one another about what to call the new planet.  And — well, who better to give credit to than to a girl whose great uncle Henry Madan had named the moons of Mars – Phobos and Deimos?

But the credit could have gone to any number of people.  Safe to say, the staff at Lowell knew they had a good story on their hands, and didn’t mind doing a little gilding of the lily in the person of Venetia Burney.

I mean, she’s called Venetia – it’s just too good to be true.  (And it almost certainly is.)

Ms. Burney – later Venetia Phair – died April 30, 2009.  Of Pluto’s demotion from planetary status, she said, “At my age, I’ve been largely indifferent to [the debate]; though I suppose I would prefer it to remain a planet.”

The asteroid 6235 Burney bears her handle, as does an instrument on the New Horizons spacecraft, destined to arrive in Pluto’s orbit in 2015.

Once again, from the spectacular archives of Lowell Observatory – with thanks to Antoinette Beiser.


Harbert, Michigan
April 6 1930

My dear Professor Gills, and others of the New Planet,

I am not a name prize winner but no one love stars and planets more than I.  I often think I fell from one, by accident, as I have never really felt at home on this.  I am always hoping some one will receive a message from “Mars.”  I hope to go there when I die.  But this new Planet better and I do hope you will call it “Shu,” God of the Atmosphere”, for surely this is god over all the world in air, as recently found by Mr. Howard Canter, in the Annex of the Tutankhamen Tomb.

What could be a more fitting name for this great world uplifting womankind, to do our great [illegible], as [illegible] on these strange worlds – may they not be made warm and pleasant by some internal heating rays of which we have no even discovered.

Josephine L. Tabour.


Rowley, Alberta
April 2, 1929.
Dear Sirs,

I have seen in the papers where a new planet has been discovered, and much excitement going on to what its name should be.  I suggest Minerva or Apollo as it took much wisdom to find it and patience, but if Minerva is to turned down name it Appollo as he was good at most everything.

Yours truly
Jesse Lamb.


93 Cliff Ave
Winthrop Highlands, Mass
March 30th 1930

Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff Arizona

Dear Sirs.,

I enjoyed reading about the New Planate in the Literary Digest. I thought of a few names so here they are.
Rima She’s at the Rim
Ja-nus God of the New Year 1930
Raido.  That most wonderful and misterius thing
Eagle- In honor of our American Eagle.
and our brave human Eagles of the air.

Truly Yours
Florence Hackett.

More letters from the excited public – including Clyde Tombaugh’s own pastor, back in Kansas! – all from the amazing archives of Lowell Observatory.

* *

Ceres, Calif.
Box 195

Board of Trustees,
Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff Ariz.

Dear Sirs —

I notice in tonites local paper that numerous suggestions for a name to be given the new planet have been received by you.

I wish to submit one.

This has been called the age of Electricity.

Witness how almost all of our later modern inventions have had to do with electricity.

And not only the more remarkable and complicated ones, like the radio, which has now become quite common, but how many of our everyday household appliances are controlled by electricity.

Doubtless your big telescope, too, depends upon that mysterious power for its control.

These are just a few of the reasons that of on the spur of the moment, as to why I wish to suggest as a name for the new planet, Electra.

Yours very truly.
E.N. Obsburn


Dear Dr. Lowell

Upon looking in the San Francisco Daily News we the low ninth general science class at San Francisco California.  Saw an artical stating thair people were requested to send in names concerning the new planet which has just been discovered.  Our class has been thinging about this and we suggest that the planet be called Xenia which means the gift of friendship which we think is a very rightfull name, it is the Greek name and be in line with the names of the other planet’s.  Also it sort of connects up with the observatory itself; because if I am not mistaken a great friendship prevails as Mr Tombaugh say’s between the Junior and sinior members of the observatory and we seriously ask you to please try and give the new planet the name of Xenia.

Respectfuloy yours
William Kennedy
Everett Junior High School
San Francisco


Garfield, Kan. 3/21/30.

Lowell Observatory
Flagstaff, Arizona.

Dear Sirs: —

I am joining the rest of the WORLD in sending congratulations to Mr. Tombaugh for his recent discovery.

I was his pastor for Five years and never met a finer or more studious young man.  He used to take me out on his place and have me look thru his telescope.

In suggesting names for the planet please allow me to suggest either BURDETT or Streator both towns in which he was reared and either of them harmonize in shortness of name with the other planets.

All of Pawnee Co. Kan. and the town of Burdett, Kan. and Streator, Ill. feel that Mr. Tombaugh should share in some way the name of the planet.

Very truly yours
W. B. Summer
Pastor M.E. Church

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