My interest in astronomy began in childhood when I received a small telescope, but I didn’t get my first “real” telescope until much later in my life. At that time I became fascinated with solar astronomy, specifically watching sunspots. I co-authored a book, The Beginner’s Guide to the Sun, and then another on amateur astronomy projects. It think it was during that time period that I learned about Francis Baily.
Baily, a businessman, astronomer and explorer, was born on April 28, 1774, in Newbury, Berkshire, England. He is best known as the astronomer who detected the phenomenon called “Baily’s beads” during an annular eclipse of the Sun on May 15, 1836.
However, before becoming an astronomer, Baily was a successful businessman. In fact, his work in establishing actuarial tables for insurance purposes was the first of its kind. After retiring in 1825, he turned his attention to science. Five years earlier, Baily helped found the Royal Astronomical Society, and in 1827 was awarded the Society’s Gold Medal for his work in the field of astronomy.
Although Baily is remembered for his contributions to science, he led a far more adventurous life as a youth. In 1796 and 1797, he traveled the American wilderness, and his recollections were published in Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America in 1796 and 1797. During his journey, Baily traveled from Washington, across the Allegheny mountains, floated down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and then made his way back on horseback by way of the Wilderness Trail—later known as the Natchez Trace.
Baily began his travels in America as a spoiled English youth, and emerged more capable, mature and tolerant. The lack of amenities which he complained about early in this journey were embraced by the end of his tour in the wilderness. Although parts of his journal were lost, the remaining part contain an extraordinary glimpse into American life. Among the most fascinating stories is his account of traveling down the river and meeting an old man who was in a canoe with his dog. That old man was Daniel Boone.
Here’s Baily’s book. It’s a great read if you’re interested in everyday life in early America.