How An African American Designed The Whitehouse
Why The Whitehouse Isn’t As White As You May Think By Freedom Eche January 2019
Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806)
Perhaps Colonial America's Greatest and Most Famous Mathematician, Scientist, Surveyor, Almanac author, Astronomer and Farmer.
Banneker had little formal education and was largely self-taught
He is known for being part of a group led by Major Andrew Ellicott that surveyed the borders of the original District of Columbia, the federal capital district of the United States.
Banneker's knowledge of astronomy helped him author a commercially successful series of almanacs. He corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the United States Declaration of Independence, on the topics of slavery and racial equality. Abolitionists and advocates of racial equality promoted and praised his works.
Appointed by President George Washington, he was one of three men who designed Washington D.C. and the White House.
Banneker's duties on the survey consisted primarily of making astronomical observations at Jones Point in Alexandria, Virginia, to ascertain the location of the starting point for the survey. He also maintained a clock that he used to relate points on the ground to the positions of stars at specific times.
However, at age 59, Banneker left the boundary survey in April 1791 due to illness and difficulties completing the survey. He returned to his home at Ellicott's Mills to work on an ephemeris. Andrew Ellicott continued the survey with his brothers Benjamin and Joseph Ellicott and other assistants through 1791 and 1792.
Title page of an edition of Banneker's 1792 almanac.
At Ellicott's Mills, Banneker made astronomical calculations that predicted solar and lunar eclipses for inclusion in his ephemeris. He placed the ephemeris and its subsequent revisions in a number of editions in a six-year series of almanacs which were printed and sold in six cities in four states for the years 1792 through 1797: Baltimore; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Delaware; Alexandria, Virginia; Petersburg, Virginia; and Richmond, Virginia.
He also kept a series of journals that contained his notebooks for astronomical observations and his diary. The journals, only one of which survived a fire on the day of his funeral, additionally contained a number of mathematical calculations and puzzles. The surviving journal documents the 1749, 1766 and 1783 emergences of Brood X of the seventeen-year periodical cicada, Magicicada septendecim, and predicts an emergence in 1800.
The title page of an edition of Banneker's 1792 Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris stated that the publication contained:
The Motions of the Sun and Moon, the True Places and Aspects of the Planets, the Rising and Setting of the Sun, Place and Age of the Moon, &c.—The Lunations, Conjunctions, Eclipses, Judgment of the Weather, Festivals, and other remarkable Days; Days for holding the Supreme and Circuit Courts of the United States, as also the useful Courts inPennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Also—several useful Tables, and valuable Receipts.—Various Selections from the Commonplace–Book of the Kentucky Philosopher, an American Sage; with interesting and entertaining Essays, in Prose and Verse—the whole comprising a greater, more pleasing, and useful Variety than any Work of the Kind and Price in North America.
He has gained a somewhat legendary status for remembering the blueprints of Washington D.C. and the White House from memory after the team leader left in anger and took all the designs back with him to France; the distressed workers thought it would take two years to redo the designs, but it took Banneker only two days to recall the designs from memory.
He gained world recognition among scientists and mathematicians when he correctly predicted the time of a solar eclipse, which contradicted two of the most prominent mathematicians of the time, Leadbetter and Ferguson.
He wrote a famous almanac from 1792-1802 that became an important household staple in early America.
His almanac included weather forecasts for the year, time of eclipses, hours of sunrise and sunset, phases of the moon, lists of medications and remedies to prevent and cure diseases, a tide table for Chesapeake Bay, holidays, an overview of the American government, and so on. His almanac was especially helpful for farmers.
He gained some national fame when, as only a teenager, he built one of America's first wooden clocks. He built the clock, which kept perfect time for 40 years, after only being given a pocket watch and some remedial textbooks on science. Incredibly his clock consisted entirely of wood.