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Pietro Baracchi, Astronomer (1851-1926)

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Source: Museum Victoria

Born in Florence, Italy, Pietro Baracchi studied mathematics and astronomy, then took a degree in civil engineering. He worked briefly as an engineer in the Italian Army before leaving Italy in 1876 with two friends to try their luck in the Antipodes. After failing to find work in New Zealand, they sailed on to Melbourne, and within a few weeks the three had all found appointments with the Victorian Government. Baracchi worked briefly as an assistant at Melbourne Observatory before spending three years as a draftsman with his friends in the Department of Lands and Survey.

Baracchi was selected by Government Astronomer Robert Ellery in 1882 to participate in a project to more accurately determine the longitudes of Australian observatories.  This was essential for tying together survey work in the different colonies and calculating the position of the observatories compared to Greenwich Observatory. Baracchi then returned to the Observatory as the assistant astronomer in charge of the Great Melbourne Telescope, and took over as Government Astronomer when Ellery retired in 1895.

Baracchi worked hard to extract the funds from the government for the continued production and publication of the astrographic, magnetic and meteorological data. But, while there were often a dozen temporary staff doing this work, the permanent staff of the observatory remained small.

Never very interested in the meteorological work established by Ellery, Baracchi supported the view that the new Commonwealth Government should take over this work. But this left the Observatory with a reduced rationale, and most importantly took away the most public aspect of its work. In 1910 Baracchi led a small group of astronomers to select a site for an astronomical observatory to be funded by the Commonwealth Government, and they established a trial observatory at Mount Stromlo, near the future site of Canberra.

A dapper, well-dressed man, married to a wealthy woman, Baracchi moved easily in social circles. In 1897 he received an Italian knighthood and was often known henceforth as Commendatore. After his wife's death, he lived in a grand old hotel in St Kilda and, upon retiring visited Europe for two years before returning to live in the Melbourne Club.

References:
Perdrix, J.L. (1979). 'Baracchi, Pietro Paolo Giovanni Ernesto (1851-1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 7, Melbourne University Press, pp. 166-167.

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