Esteemed thinker: Benjamin Banneker

math class Every day we use numbers and though they are part of our daily life we take them for granted. Yet isn’t it a curious notion that something we use so often is actually not a real or tangible thing but rather an abstraction? Numbers are a made-up concept. We can’t hold one, or touch one, or even eat one. Numbers are merely a representation of items. They represent the years we have lived, the amount of candy in a box, or how long it takes for a person to travel from one place to another.

Numbers are used in a calendar and on a clock whereby we can calculate another made up abstraction we call time. Time is a sequential relationship to events that mark the past, the future, or the present. The numbers are a collection of the events such as 24 hours in a day; which again represents a practical way of measuring a sequence of a specific duration. How chaotic would life be if we did not have numbers.

Which leads me to another very important integer, the zero! Yes, I know what ou are thinking, zero mean nothing…whereby I will remind those skeptics that the zero was a most ingenious invention as the universal place holder …let’s face it, without zero we would never get above 9………..

So the next time someone tells you that are not good in math, look upon them with a bit more empathy for after all, numbers are all just a bunch of made-up notations. (Might as well use x, y, and z…oh wait we do!!)

Benjamin BannekerToday’s blog brings to you the esteemed thinker: Benjamin Banneker (1731- 1806) African-American mathematician, surveyor, astronomer, and publisher of a popular almanac. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, he was the son of a free woman and a former slave father. Banneker did not have much of a formal education, although he was taught to read by his grandmother, he was able to only briefly attend a Quaker school because he was needed to work on the family farm.

Banneker was a self- motivated and self-educated man who gained national acclaim for scientific work in the 1791 surveying the Federal Territory (now Washington, D.C.). In 1753, he built one of the first watches made in America, a wooden pocket watch. His interest in how the celestial world worked eventually gave him the insight to learned to predict lunar and solar eclipses based on what he absorbed from his learning and mathematical equations that he formulated.

His skills as a mathematician continued to dazzle when he published an almanac with astronomical calculations. (1792-1797).

I now bring to you a portion from his letter to Thomas Jefferson, where the correspondence between these two great men can be seen today at the home of Jefferson, Monticello.

“… Sir, although my sympathy and affection for my brethren hath caused my enlargement thus far, I ardently hope, that your candor and generosity will plead with you in my behalf, when I make known to you, that it was not originally my design; but having taken up my pen in order to direct to you, as a present, a copy of an Almanac, which I have calculated for the succeeding year, I was unexpectedly and unavoidably led thereto.
This calculation is the production of my arduous study, in this my advanced stage of life; for having long had unbounded desires to become acquainted with the secrets of nature, I have had to gratify my curiosity herein, through my own assiduous application to Astronomical Study, in which I need not recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages, which I have had to encounter…

I industriously applied myself thereto, which I hope I have accomplished with correctness and accuracy; a copy of which I have taken the liberty to direct to you, and which I humbly request you will favorably receive; and although you may have the opportunity of perusing it after its publication, yet I choose to send it to you in manuscript previous thereto, that thereby you might not only have an earlier inspection, but that you might also view it in my own hand writing…”

First image: Vocational Printing math class. 1916,Fall River, Massachusetts photographed by Lewis W. Hine

Second image: “Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer,” mural by Maxime Seelbinder, at the Recorder of Deeds building, built in 1943. 515 D St., NW, Washington, D.C.

3 thoughts on “Esteemed thinker: Benjamin Banneker

  1. Oh my gosh, Nanette. I am always amazed and intrigued by this earlier style of writing, where we would use two words when one would suffice, when we used more torturouse sentence structures than we do today. I am more inclined to a writing style like Hemingway’s, one that never caused a reader to open a dictionary. (I forget who criticized him in that fashion) To think I was an English Lit. major. i wasn’t aware of B. Banneker, a fine choice. 🙂

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