July 17, 2019

Benjamin Banneker: An American Astronomer.

In today’s fast-paced day and age, most of us have access to nearly limitless information and knowledge. None of us can consume it all, but the flow of data is wide open for all who chose it.

But what of those in the past that had the mental capacity and the thirst for knowledge, but lacked the means to slake it? I sometimes wonder how many Newtons or Einsteins might have been born into poverty or ignorance, and what advancements we might have been robbed of…

And then there are such amazing stories as that of American inventor and astronomer Benjamin Banneker. Born a free man on November 9th, 1731 in Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland, his intellect would propel him to almost mythical status. Lesser known than Benjamin Franklin that came before him or George Washington Carver who came after, he was a true renaissance man who single handedly taught himself agriculture, literature, clock making, and astronomy. Were he only to have published his early almanacs, his place in early American history would have been assured. But what is perhaps truly amazing is that he accomplished all of this as a farmer, living in a border state, long before slavery was ultimately abolished.

Benjamin Banneker was born the son of free parents. His father was an escaped slave; his mother, Mary was a free woman, which assured Banneker’s free status under the then statutes of Maryland law. His roots could be traced back to Mary’s parents Molly Welsh, an English immigrant and Banna Ka, who was African nobility turned slave. Legends concerning Banna Ka are themselves fascinating; some contend that he was a Dogon prince, a tribe in the Mali region who knew much of astronomy themselves. The Dogon are famed for having bizarre knowledge concerning the Dog Star, Sirius, but that is another post!

Molly purchased and eventually married Banna Ka, who died before Benjamin’s birth. Molly played a crucial role in educating young Benjamin, teaching him to read via the Bible and passed on some of the legends and star lore from his grandfather. His basic schooling was also continued by local Quakers, who were known for their anti-slavery stance. Little else is known of his early childhood, but young Benjamin must have been exposed to the racial mores of the day. These experiences would later come to the surface in his correspondences with then President Thomas Jefferson condemning slavery.

What is known is that Benjamin Banneker was an inquisitive child, and possessed a photographic memory. He consumed what literature was available to him, and hungrily searched for more. At age 21, he built a working replica of a clock shown to him, meticulously carving the wooden gears and pieces by hand! It was said that this clock was functional throughout his life time.

Then, one day, a close friend willed Banneker a collection that was to change his life. It included tools, astronomical texts, and a small telescope. One can imagine Banneker eagerly approaching the new found interest for the first time, learning astronomy in a solitary and contemplative fashion. His learning curve was a steep one, but Banneker easily surmounted it, providing accurate predictions for both lunar and solar eclipses, notably the annular solar eclipse of April 3rd, 1791, which passed directly over North America. And how he must have eagerly awaited the total lunar eclipse of May 29th, 1798! With a keen mind, he adeptly mastered the mathematics of saros cycles. But it is for his almanacs that Benjamin Banneker became truly known.

In 1792, Banneker published a series of almanacs containing ephemeris, or tables for the rising, setting and transit times of the Moon, Sun, planets and stars, as well as phenomena such as eclipses. His almanac ran for five years and became an indispensible reference for farmers and astronomical observers of the time. Fame had also led Banneker to conduct an early survey of the District of Columbia area; part of the Banneker legend has him saving President George Washington in designing the new capitol after the dismissal of the tempestuous L’Enfant. Whatever the case, Banneker proved to be a first rate surveyor, naturalist, and astronomical predictor and observer.

Banneker was also known for writing several treatises to President Jefferson, urging him to abolish slavery. These were some of the first public condemnations of the practice, and much of Banneker’s’ personality shines through in these writings. They are remarkable for their lucidity and elegance; one of our favorite lines is the following;

“Evil communication corrupts good manners. I hope to live to hear that good communication corrects bad manners.”

Alas, Banneker’s almanacs didn’t earn him the fame or fortune that Franklin’s did. Plagued by alcoholism and poverty in his later years, he never married. Benjamin Banneker died on October 25th, 1806, just a month shy of his 75th birthday. Legend has it that he passed away lying in a field, looking up at the Moon.

Banneker has been memorialized in different ways over the years; stamps commemorate him, and he narrowly missed being engraved on the District of Columbia quarter in 2009. (Can you believe that Duke Ellington beat him out? Thanks, D.C.!) A Historical Park and Museum dedicated to Banneker also exists in Catonsville Maryland, on the original site of Banneker’s farm.

How many other potential Banneker’s out there have come and gone, it’s impossible to say… maybe the next one is just now getting a look at a web browser for the first time, and thirsting for knowledge. One thing is for sure; giants like Banneker show us that we all may have a colossal potential for intellect to live up to, and to approach the world anew and without preconception or prejudice each night as we gaze out into the universe may be the greatest challenge of all!

 

Trackbacks

  1. [...] in 1792, it’s the oldest continuously published Almanac in America. Doing last month’s post on Benjamin Banneker  and his seminal works made me recall this gem. Not to be confused with the Farmer’s Almanac  [...]

  2. [...] questions from our own recent astronomical research. One wonders what American astronomer Benjamin Banneker was doing during the transit of 1769… I’m also curious as to the role the Quito observatory in [...]

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