The day that Francis died: Taking Isaac down a peg or two.

The eminent London stockbroker Francis Baily died aged 70 on 30th August 1844.

Those who don’t immediately recognise the name are probably thinking that the Renaissance Mathematicus has gone off the rails. We come here to read stories about the history of science in the Early Modern Period and not obituaries of Victorian fat cats. Not to worry although I have, as oft before, wandered into the 19th century we are still on history of science territory. Baily was also prestigious astronomer. He is known as the man who gave his name to the phenomenon of Baily’s Beads an optical effect that occurs on the edge of the moon’s shadow during an eclipse of the sun.

Born 28th April 1774 in Newbury in Berkshire the son of a banker Francis started a mercantile apprenticeship at the age of fourteen. When his finished his apprenticeship at the age of twenty-two he took the unusual step of sailing to America where he spent the next two years living the life of an explorer and adventurer; his journal of this period of his life was published posthumously by Augustus De Morgan in 1856. Returning to London he started out on his career as stockbroker. He was a very successful finance expert and also published several important works on various aspects of the financial world.  In his spare time he also wrote and published an Epitome of Universal History. The research for this work awoke his interest in astronomy and from about 1810 he devoted his spare time to this science. In this phase he published several, mostly historical papers, and was a founding member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1820, serving as its first secretary. In 1825 Baily, having amassed a substantial fortune on the stock market, retired to devote himself fulltime to his hobby.

In the next nineteen years Baily managed a vast amount of scientific work, which brought him the recognition of the Victorian scientific community. He twice won the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society whose president he became and was elected to membership of the Royal Society, The Linnean Society and The Geological Society. His scientific work was diverse and included the design of scientific pendula and determining the density of the earth but his greatest contribution to astronomy was as a drudge! Baily was a pedant, a perfectionist and a stickler for accuracy, qualities that almost certainly helped him to amass his fortune. He was outraged by the inaccuracies in the Nautical Almanac, the tables seamen used to determine longitude by the moon distance method so he edited and correct them for the Board of Longitude. Editing such tables is very exacting and tedious but it led Bailey to an even more tedious life’s work.  During his work on the Nautical Almanac Baily complained that there was no star catalogue available that met the standards of accuracy necessary for his work so he set out to correct the problem. Over the following years Baily edited, corrected and published the star catalogues of Ptolemaeus, Ulugh Beg, Tycho Brahe, Halley, Flamsteed, Hevelius, Mayer, Lacaille, and D’Agelet and Lalande. The last two involved even more work as the observations of Lacaille, 10 000 southern stars, and those of D’Agelet and Lalande, 50 000 stars observed from Paris, were recorded but hadn’t been reduced to star catalogues yet: Baily undertook this task. As well as all these historical catalogues Baily found time to produce a standard catalogue of 10 000 stars for the British Association.

It was whilst he was working on Flamsteed’s star catalogue that Baily undertook the work that provided the sub-title of this post. As chance would have it one of Baily’s neighbour was in possession of part of Flamsteed’s correspondence, which he showed to Baily. Baily’s interest was awoken and he went on the search for more of Flamsteed’s correspondence and private papers, with success. His edition of Flamsteed’s star catalogue contained a biography of Flamsteed based on his correspondence and papers and this caused a minor sensation in the Victorian scientific community.

To understand the effect of Baily’s Flamsteed book we have to go back to the 17th century. Isaac Newton was an arrogant, cantankerous, pigheaded arsehole who succeeded in becoming involved in extensive disputes with most of his scientific peers, not that he would ever have admitted that they were his peers. His intellectual wars with Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz are legendary but possibly the most evil of his dispute was with John Flamsteed the first Astronomer Royal. I have commented on this dispute before and wont go into details here, what is important is how the dispute went into history. With the deification of Newton, in the words of one of my favourite historians, history:

painted Flamsteed as obstructive, jealous and suspicious1

a petty minded plodder incapable of recognising Newton’s towering genius or understanding the importance of his work. This was the picture that was inherited by the 19th century until Baily let Flamsteed speak for himself. Suddenly Newton no longer seemed so perfect and the blame for the dispute no longer seemed so one sided. Baily’s Flamsteed memoir had a major influence on the history and the historiography of science; he had succeeded in pricking Newton’s hagiographic bubble. St Isaac had been taken down a peg or two. Baily’s work marks a turning point in our understanding of Newton moving him along the road from plastic saint to real, if somewhat unpleasant, human being. Sometimes editing star catalogues can lead to unexpected results for the history of science.

1) the quote is from Rebekah Higgitt, Astronomers against Newton, Endeavour vol 28 2004 (pp 20 – 24) p21. This article deals with the impact of Baily’s Flamsteed memoir at the time it was published as part of the changing image of Newton in the 19th century that she handles in greater detail in her excellent monograph Recreating Newton.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Newton

5 responses to “The day that Francis died: Taking Isaac down a peg or two.

  1. Pingback: The day that Francis died: Taking Isaac down a peg or two. | Whewell's Ghost

  2. DCA

    Thanks: I knew about Baily and catalogs, and Baily and Flamsteed, but not how these were connected.

    A current parallel (which you may well know about) is the effort by Verbunt and Van Gent to provide machine-readable versions of various catalogs, with the entries matched to modern positions: a good source of error estimates. See,%20R.%20H.&db_key=AST

  3. I didn’t really know about this one but it’s a typical Rob (van Gent) project. I know him personally and often ask myself where he finds the time and energy for all his projects.

  4. Pingback: Grumpy old astronomers behaving badly or don’t just blame Isaac! | The Renaissance Mathematicus

  5. As a direct descendant, I found this illuminating. Thanks. I also note that Baily is also spelled Bailey in some places the article.
    John Valean Baily

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s