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Baracchi, Pietro Paolo Giovanni Ernesto (1851–1926)

by J. L. Perdrix

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Pietro Paolo Giovanni Ernesto Baracchi (1851-1926), by Russell Grimwade

Pietro Paolo Giovanni Ernesto Baracchi (1851-1926), by Russell Grimwade

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/3067 [with Alfred Felton (standing)]

Pietro Paolo Giovanni Ernesto Baracchi (1851-1926), astronomer, was born on 25 February 1851 at Florence, Italy, son of Giovanni Battista Baracchi, a Tuscan Army officer of independent means, and his wife Anna, née Paoletti. He was educated by private tutor and later at a school in Florence where he studied mathematics and astronomy. After taking a degree in civil engineering, probably in Florence, he served briefly in the Italian Army as an engineer.

Early in 1876 Baracchi and his friends Carlo Catani and Ettore Checchi sailed from Hamburg in the Fritz Reuter for New Zealand, but found little opportunity to practise their professions. They moved on to Australia, reaching Melbourne in September. Within a few weeks the three friends had gained appointments in the Victorian Public Service. Baracchi began work as an assistant at the Melbourne Observatory on 1 November but by March 1877 had joined Catani and Checchi in the Department of Lands and Survey as a draftsman; in July 1880 he passed his land surveyor's examination with credit. In October 1882 he was transferred back to the observatory when R. L. J. Ellery, the government astronomer, selected him to go to Port Darwin to take part in a project to determine Australian longitudes. After successfully completing his task, Baracchi returned to Melbourne in April 1883 and in August became third assistant, in charge of the Great Melbourne Telescope, undertaking a review of the southern nebulae. On 30 June 1886 at St Mary's Catholic Church, St Kilda, he married the wealthy Catherine (Kate) Petty.

In 1892 Baracchi was promoted to first assistant and when Ellery retired on 30 June 1895 he became acting government astronomer. His position was not confirmed however until 27 December 1900, nor was a chief assistant appointed to replace him until 1907 when J. M. Baldwin joined the staff. Until then, Baracchi wrote, 'we were left, a band of four, to carry out the meridian and astrophotographic work'. Moreover, from 1895 there were no funds for publishing the observatory's records.

Baracchi was best known to the general public as official weather-forecaster for the colony, a role that he did not like. To him, 'popular meteorology' was 'of little practical value except as an amusement, and of doubtful credit to science'. In 1902 he supported the opinion that meteorological work carried out by astronomical observatories should be placed under Commonwealth control, and that the observatories, relieved of these duties, should remain independent State institutions. In 1906 the Meteorology Act gave control of weather services to the Commonwealth and by the end of 1907 the Melbourne Observatory was freed of its meteorological function—and never regained its former status.

In February 1910 the Commonwealth government invited Baracchi and a party of four to the Yass-Canberra area to select a suitable site for an astronomical observatory. With a 9-inch (23 cm) refractor, donated by J. Oddie, Baracchi established a small observatory on Mount Stromlo in May 1911. He and Baldwin alternately spent one week in six testing the site until May 1913; a month later Baracchi reported that it 'fulfilled the most essential requirements for any class of delicate astronomical work'. He led expeditions to observe solar eclipses to Bruny Island, Tasmania, in 1910 and to the Tongan archipelago in 1911. In 1914 he wrote a chapter, 'Astronomy and geodesy in Australia' for the Federal Handbook of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

He was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1884, and in 1897 the Italian monarch appointed him a commander of the Order of the Crown of Italy; Baracchi was thereafter often referred to as Commendatore. He had been naturalized on 10 June 1895. A member of the Royal Society of Victoria from 1887, he was president in 1908-09 and a trustee in 1914-22. He was a man of 'particularly likable disposition, with a genius for making friends'. Ellery had written in 1895 that 'Baracchi's attainments in all branches of science involved in Observatory work are of the highest order'. His concentration on scientific rather than managerial and political matters, however, did little to help the Melbourne Observatory keep pace with overseas institutions.

Baracchi's wife died in 1908. In 1915 he retired and in 1922 visited Europe for two years; after his return he lived at the Melbourne Club. He died of cancer on 23 July 1926 and was buried in Melbourne cemetery, leaving his estate, valued for probate at £32,679, to his only son Guido (1887-1975), a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • Board of Visitors to the Observatory, Reports, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1883, 4 (51), 1884, 4 (86), Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1903 (2nd session), 2 (28), 1907, 2 (7), 1911, 2 (3)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 17 July 1897, 21 Aug 1915
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 27 Feb 1902
  • Punch (Melbourne), 21 Feb 1907, 8 Apr 1909.

Citation details

J. L. Perdrix, 'Baracchi, Pietro Paolo Giovanni Ernesto (1851–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 26 October 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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