Bailly, Jean-Sylvain

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Bailly, Jean-Sylvain (1736-93): French Scientist.

Jean-Sylvain Bailly’s career reflects the rationalism and illuminism characteristic of the optimistic, pre-revolutionary belief in the grand order. Born in the Louvre in 1736 and trained as an artist, Bailly became a student of the astronomer Lacaille in his early twenties. In recognition of his astronomical work, Bailly won a chair at the Academy of Sciences in 1763. In 1766, he published his first scientific monograph. From 1775-87, he published five volumes of his history of astronomy, which combine historical research based on documented sources with speculation influenced by the illuminist ideas of de Gébelin. Bailly described the existence of an antediluvian, Northern race whose perfect knowledge of astronomy was preserved in fragmented form in the Mediterranean and Asia. Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de, whose correspondence is included in two of Bailly’s works, viewed the hypothesis skeptically.

In 1784, Bailly was elected to the French Academy. Representing the Academy of Sciences along with Franklin, Benjamin and Lavoisier, Antoine Laurent, he was appointed to the committee investigating mesmerism. By 1785, he had also been named to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, and had been appointed to several further commissions. After winning a seat in the Assembly of Electors in July 1789, he became mayor of Paris. He managed to establish and maintain some semblance of civic order in the capital during his term. Following his resignation in 1791, Bailly retreated to the provinces to write his memoirs. He died at the guillotine on November 12, 1793.

Further reading:

F. Bessire, “La lettre, du débat d’idées à la stratégie de communication: l’échange épistolaire entre Voltaire et Jean-Sylvain Bailly sur l’origine des sciences et ses prolongements éditoriaux,” B. Melancon, ed., Penser par lettre, 1998: 295-310.

Janet Bertsch