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Baily's beads and financial lessons for today


Francis Baily, who was born at Newbury, Berkshire, in 1774, toured "the unsettled parts of North America" in 1796–1797 then entered the London Stock Exchange, where he had a financial career radically different from those we have lately been hearing about. At the peak of his success, aged 51, he retired to embark on his life's calling.

Baily had a gloriously logical mind. Early in the 19th century he published tables for purchasing and renewing leases and he explained the principles of interest and annuities. He also had a sterling character - he amassed a fortune "through diligence and integrity". But in fact, Baily had to fight for financial integrity and his fight may sound familiar to us today. For those who are interested, the Oxford DNB explains -

Baily's overriding concern was to establish a system to facilitate the buying and selling of annuities and leases with the object of alleviating the state of the national debt. The prevailing funding system had begun well managed—the money required for the service of government was borrowed for only a short duration (five to seven years). However, as the exigencies of the state increased, the term of the loan was lengthened to a period of 99 years and finally to the prevailing system of borrowing money on perpetuities. For Baily each change was more disastrous than the former. Baily's solution to the national debt, drawing heavily on Price, was simply to exchange the perpetuities for terminable annuities. The difference would then be paid through the sinking fund—‘the very purpose for which that fund was established’.

In 1806 Baily talked at length in his The Rights of the Stock Brokers Defended Against the Attacks of the City of London of the dangers of seemingly plausible projects devised to make money on the stock exchange during the eighteenth century. For Baily, speculative projects and theories had to be effectively expelled from the financial and intellectual market. This meant a careful policing of information. The question centred upon what information was accurate and what was not. This is highlighted in his vigilance on the stock exchange, which culminated in his central role exposing the fraud of De Beranger in 1814. De Beranger had been employed to supply intelligence from the scene of the war abroad with the purpose of influencing the price of British funds. Baily epitomized sound, thorough, precise thinking. . .

But the business which Baily loved was astronomy. He had been making contributions to the science even before he left his job as a stock broker. He helped to establish the Royal Astronomical Society and prepared the Society's Catalogue of 2881 stars. Then he began pulling together and recalculating the observations of hundreds of different astronomers from all over Europe. He shepherded the compilation of star catalogues containing 8377 and 57,000 stars.

As his friend Herschel put it, he ascertained "all that has really been recorded of the stars. . .to make that totality of knowledge the common property of astronomers". Baily went on to reform the Nautical Almanac, improving its astronomy and calculations and therefore its accuracy for sailors, whose lives depended on it.

Baily's achievements creep up on you. It's hard to comprehend all he accomplished. He determined the most accurate figure to date of the ellipticity of the Earth, which was later used in reconstructing standards of length. He confirmed the mean density of the Earth by diligently working through 2100 observations. And he served on numerous scientific societies in Britain and abroad, and helped to found the Royal Geographical Society.

Meanwhile he was making his own celestial observations. In 1836, while observing an eclipse of the Sun, he described what we now call Baily's Beads -

As the moon 'grazes' the Sun during a solar eclipse, irradiation and the Moon's rugged topography allows beads of sunlight to shine through. Baily understood what the beads of light said about the surface of the Moon.

With all this going on, and his sister holding the fort at home, he had no time for marriage.

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