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Thumbnail of Benjamin Banneker (source)
Benjamin Banneker
(9 Nov 1731 - 9 Oct 1806)

Black-American astronomer, inventor and mathematician.

Benjamin Banneker.


from Men of Mark (1887)

[p.344] IN the darkness there was light, and the fire of his intellect attracted universal attention to himself and made for him undying and imperishable fame. This remarkable genius and devoted son was born in Baltimore county, Maryland, November 9, 1731, near the village of Ellicott’s Mills. It is thought that his parents were full blooded Africans, but George W. Williams, the historian, says his grandmother was a white emigrant who married a Negro whose freedom she purchased; and of the four children born to them, one was a girl who married Robert Banneker, of whom Benjamin was the only child.

His parents accumulated sufficient means to buy a few acres and build a small cabin. The son was sent to school in the neighborhood, where he learned reading, writing and arithmetic. When Benjamin reached a suitable age he was compelled to assist his aged parents in their labors, but every spare moment found him “ciphering” and storing his mind with useful knowledge. His mother was active enough to do the work of the house, and when seventy years old caught her chickens by running them down [p.345] without apparent fatigue. The place of his location was thickly settled; though he was known as a boy of intelligence, yet his neighbors took but little notice of him. He was determined to acquire knowledge, and while his hands worked hard, his brain was planning and solving problems in arithmetic. His observation extended to all around him, and his memory was retentive and he lost nothing. But the little education he had acquired was all his parents, who were poor, could give him. Yet little by little he stored it all up, and in the course of time became superior to most of his white neighbors, who had more favorable opportunities and were in better circumstances than he was. His fame had spread so rapidly that they began to say to one another: “That black Ben is a smart fellow. He can make anything he sets out to; and how much he knows! I wonder where he picked it all up?”

In 1770 he made a clock which was an excellent timepiece. He had never seen a clock, as such a thing was unknown in the region in which he lived, but he had seen a watch which so attracted his attention that he aspired to make something like it. His greatest difficulty was in making the hour and minute hands correspond in their motion, but by perseverance he succeeded, though he had never read the Latin motto, “Perseverentia omnia vincet,” yet he did persevere and succeeded. This was the first clock ever made in this country, and it excited much attention, especially because it was made by a Negro. Mr. Ellicott, the owner of the mills, became very much interested in the self-taught machinist, and let him have many books, among which was one on astronomy. This new [p.346] supply of knowledge so interested Banneker that he thought of nothing else. This kind gentleman, who had allowed him to use his books, for some reason failed to explain the subject of the books when he gave them to him, but when he met him again he was surprised to find Banneker independent of all instruction. He had mastered all the difficult problems contained in them.

From this time the study of astronomy became the great object of his life. Soon he could calculate when the sun or moon should be eclipsed, and at what time every star would rise. In this he was so accurate that mistakes were never found. In order to pursue his studies he sold his land his parents had left him and bought an annuity on which he lived, in the little cabin of his birth. As he was never seen tilling the soil, his ignorant neighbors began to abuse him. They called him lazy when they peeped into his cabin and saw him asleep in the day-time. They were ignorant of the fact of his watching the stars all night and ciphering out his calculation. Banneker, instead of resenting all this bad feeling, endeavored to live in such a way as to demand their respect. His generous heart made him always kind and ready to oblige everybody.

A sketch of his life is found in the ‘History of the Negro Race in America,’ by the Hon. George W. Williams, from which the following extract is taken:

The following question was propounded by Banneker to Mr. George Ellicott, and was solved by Benjamin Hollowell of Alexandria:

A cooper and vintner sat down for a talk,
Both being so groggy that neither could walk.
Says cooper to vintner, “I am the first of my trade,
There is no kind of vessel but what I have made
And of any shape, sir—just what you will—
And of any size, sir, from a ton to a gill!”
“Then,” says the vintner, “you are the man for me;
Make me a vessel, if we can agree.
The top and the bottom diameter define.
To bear that proportion as fifteen to nine;
Thirty-five inches are just what I crave,
No more and no less, in the depth will I have;
Just thirty-nine gallons this vessel must hold—
Then I will reward you with silver and gold—
Give me your promise, my honest old friend?”
“I’ll make it tomorrow, that you may depend!”
So the next day the cooper, his work to discharge,
Soon made a new vessel, but made it too large;
He took out some staves, which made it too small,
And then cursed the vessel, the vintner and all.
He beat on his breast; “By the powers,” he swore,
He never would work at his trade any more!
Now my worthy friend, find out if you can,
The vessel’s dimensions and comfort the man.
(Signed)     Benjamin Banneker.

The answer to this question is as follows: The greater diameter of Banneker’s tub must be 24.746 inches, and the lesser diameter 14.8476 inches.

In 1792, though limited in means and scanty education, he prepared an excellent almanac, which was published by Goddard & Angell of Baltimore. In the preface they expressed themselves as highly gratified with the opportunity of presenting to the public such an extraordinary effort of genius calculated by a sable son of Africa. This was the first almanac ever published in this country. Besides astronomical calculations, it contained much useful knowledge of a general nature and interesting selections of [p.348] prose and verse. Professor R. T. Greener owns a copy of this almanac. Banneker sent a manuscript copy in his own handwriting to Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state and afterwards President of the United States. In addressing him he said:

Those of my complexion have long been considered rather brutish than human—scarcely capable of mental endowments. But, in consequence of the reports that have reached me, I hope I may safely admit that you are measurably friendly and well disposed toward us. I trust that you will agree with me in thinking that one universal Father hath given being to us all; that he has not only made us all of one flesh, but has also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties; and that, however various we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family and all stand in the same relation to Him. Now, sir, if this is founded in truth, I apprehend you will readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate the absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us.

Suffer me, sir, to recall to your mind that when the tyranny of the British crown was exerted to reduce you to servitude, your abhorrence thereof was so excited that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, worthy to be recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Your tender feelings for yourselves engaged you thus to declare. You were then impressed with proper ideas of the great value of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings to which you are entitled by nature. But, sir, how pitiable it is to reflect that, although you are so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which He had conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract His mercies in detaining, by fraud and violence, so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression; that you should [p.349] at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act which you detested in others with respect to yourselves.

Sir, I freely and most cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race; and in that color which is natural to them I am of the deepest dye. But, with a sense of the most profound gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the universe, I confess that I am not under that state of tyrannical thraldom and inhuman captivity to which so many of my brethren are doomed. I have abundantly tasted of those blessings which proceed from that free and unequaled liberty with which you are favored.

Sir, I suppose your knowledge of the situation of my brethren is too extensive for it to need a recital here. Neither shall I presume to prescribe methods by which they may be relieved, otherwise than by recommending to you and others to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices you have imbibed with respect to them, and to do as Job proposed to his friends—“put your souls in their souls’ stead.” Thus shall your hearts be enlarged with kindness and benevolence toward them, and you will need neither the direction of myself or others in what manner to proceed.

I took up my pen to direct to you, as a present, a copy of an Almanac I have calculated for the succeeding year. I ardently hope that your candor and generosity will plead with you in my behalf. Sympathy and affection for my brethren has caused my enlargement thus far; it was not originally my design.

B. Banneker.

To this letter Jefferson made the following reply:

Sir, I thank you sincerely for your letter, and for the Almanac it contained. Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing only to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America. I can add, with truth, that no one wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and to members of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it a document to which your whole color had a right, for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am, with great esteem, sir, your most obedient servant,

Thomas Jefferson.

In 1803 Mr. Jefferson invited the astronomer to visit him at Monticello, but the increasing infirmities of age made it imprudent to undertake the journey. His almanacs sold well for ten years, and the income, added to his annuity, gave him a very comfortable support; and, what was a still greater satisfaction to him, was the consciousness of doing something to help the cause of his oppressed people by proving to the world that nature had endowed them with good capacities.

After 1802 he found himself too old to calculate any more almanacs, but as long as he lived he continued to be deeply interested in his various studies.

He died in 1804, in his seventy-second year; his remains were buried near the dwelling that he had occupied during his life. His mode of life was regular and retired. He was kind and generous to all around him; his head was covered with thick white hair, which gave him a venerable appearance; his dress was uniformly superfine drab broadcloth, made in the old, plain style, coat with straight collar, a long waist and a broad-brimmed hat. His color [p.351] was not quite black, but decidedly Negro. In his personal appearance he is said to have borne a striking resemblance to the statue of Benjamin Franklin, at the library at Philadelphia.

Banneker’s abilities have often been brought forward as an argument against the enslavement of his race, and ever since he has been quoted as a proof of the mental capacity of Africans. Surely the smoldering embers of the latent fires of their ancient greatness was awakened in him, and the thousands of camp-fires of an intellectual revival can be seen now on the highest hilltop, climbing the mountains, at its base, down the valley and in its darkest shade.

Stamp image and caption added (not from original text). Text from William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1887), 344-351. (source)

See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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