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Frances Baily

Be careful what you say — a single phrase can define a legacy.

Consider Frances Baily. He served four terms as president of the Royal Astronomical Society and compiled some of the most important star catalogs in history. But he’s best known for five little words: “like a string of beads.”

Baily was born 250 years ago today, in England. As a young man, he traveled to the wilds of North America, then joined the London Stock Exchange. He was especially good at the mathematical side of things, compiling guides about annuities and life insurance. He made a fortune, then retired in 1825 to spend all of his time on astronomy.

Baily had already helped establish the forerunner of the royal society. He used his skills from his days in business to compile star catalogs — work that required a lot of tedious calculations. One of them was the leading publication of its time.

In 1836, Baily watched a solar eclipse from Scotland. Just before the Sun vanished, he noticed little points of light around the edge of the Moon. Edmond Halley had seen the same thing more than a century earlier. Halley even explained those points: they’re sunlight shining through gaps between lunar mountains and craters.

To his fellow astronomers, Baily described them as “a row of lucid points, like a string of beads.” So today, the points are known as “Baily’s beads” — insuring a bit of immortality for an insurance expert-turned-astronomer.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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