Posted on

Benjamin Banneker and a Cascade of Coincidences

Well, even I have to take a day off…sort of.  So, 9 October, a whole lot of things happened.  Charlemagne and his brother Carloman were crowned Kings of the Franks in 768; Louis VII of France married the only daughter of Henry VII of England, Mary, in 1514; Gabriel Fallopius (the guy who named the fallopian tubes) died in 1562;  the siege of Yorktown, Virginia ended in 1781; the first calliope was patented in 1855; Montgomery Ward mailed his first catalog in 1872; the Hoover Dam started sending power to Los Angeles in 1936; WXYZ TV began broadcasting in Detroit in 1948 (famous for giving Soupy Sales (above) his national start); Che Guevara was executed in Columbia in 1967; and Andrei Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975.  Today is also National Chess Day (for reasons beyond my understanding), National Kick Butt Day (I kid you not…somebody actually named it that); and National Mouldy Cheese Day (I’m…speechless).  But today I’m going to talk about surveying, and a whole slew of coincidences.

At age 22 Banneker finished building a clock that struck the hour, scaled up from a pocket watch.

Benjamin Banneker, like many men of his time, was largely self-taught. In his time and place, however, that says a great deal, because Banneker was born of a free black woman and a former slave on 9 November 1731 in Baltimore County, Maryland. We know very little for certain of his early life.  He may have been schooled by Quaker Abolitionist Paul Heinrichs, but it’s hard to say for sure. At age 22 Banneker finished building a clock that struck the hour, scaled up from a pocket watch. This is remarkable for someone without formal horology training, but most early chronometers were made substantially of wood so that kind of construction was common.

Banneker was an inveterate tinkerer, astronomer and mathematician, for he studied a grist mill as it was being built near his home, and made some calculations for a solar eclipse in 1789

Banneker was an inveterate tinkerer, and a diligent astronomer and mathematician, for he studied a grist mill as it was being built near his home, and made some calculations for a solar eclipse in 1789. He tried to publish an ephemeris (a set of celestial tabulations) in 1780 but failed to find a printer. Until the 20th century, if you really wanted accurate time you got yourself an almanac, calculated your latitude and longitude (a sextant helped, but was not necessary), and observed stars and planets as they rolled across the heavens, and the sunrise and sunset for a few clear days and nights.  If you’re so inclined you can still do so if you’re far enough away from city lights to see the horizon.

Banneker left the team in April of the same year due to illness and the difficulties of such work at age 59

In February 1791, Andrew Endicott hired Banneker to make astronomical observations for his survey team that laid out the boundaries of what would become Washington, District of Columbia.  Banneker left the team in April of the same year due to illness and the difficulties of such work at age 59. He published a highly-regarded ephemeris and tide tables for Chesapeake Bay in 1791, having finally gained enough recognition for his talents.

Many myths have grown up over the years, most having to do with the District of Columbia survey

In later life he corresponded with Thomas Jefferson and published several anti-slavery tracts. Banneker died in his cabin on 9 October 1807, a month before his 75th birthday.  Most of his papers and personal belongings burned on the day of his funeral. Many myths have grown up over the years, most having to do with the District of Columbia survey.  Banneker’s contribution was, in itself, remarkable in that it provided a baseline for the survey, but it was also very brief. As a self-taught astronomer/mathematician, this son of a former slave already has much to be remembered for. As a mathematical moron, I’m fascinated by anyone who managed to move beyond the rudimentary arithmetic that I can barely manage myself.

The non-breathtaking thing about coincidences is that they happen whether you want them to or not, and, depending on how you define zero (counting number in the middle of a range or the beginning and end of everything), are either signs of a cosmic creator or the inevitable happenings of the universe.  On 9 October:

  • In 1000, Leif Ericsson is thought to have landed on Newfoundland. In 2017, 9 October is also the second Tuesday in October, making it Landing Day/Columbus Day (since 1970) in the US, that is also Native American/Indigenous People’s Day.  9 October is also National Leif Ericsson Day.
  • In 1876, the first two-way (duplex) telephone conversation was held; in 1947 the first telephone conversation between a moving car and an airplane took place.
  • In 1906, Joseph Glidden died.  His best known invention was the first commercially successful, ready-made barbed wire. In 1941, President Roosevelt approved a project to develop an atomic weapon, the final divorce from the marriage made in hell–barbed wire and the machine gun.  Also, in 2006 North Korea is thought to have tested their first nuclear weapon.
  • In 1980, the first home computer banking transaction took place in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Because of this, not coincidentally, 9 October is also National Online Bank Day.  Thank Ally Bank for this one, registering it in 2015 in commemoration of their millionth customer.  No, not a coincidence, but my wife the banker wouldn’t let me forget it.

As most of you know, this blog is added to a web site (hopefully) by now: this entry is written in early September.  If you’re so inclined you can check out the site, JDBCOM.COM, and look at some of the other content as it’s being built.

Or not.


On a personal note, I just got word that one of my oldest friends, Bill Crum (aka flooglestreet) passed away this morning. Everyone who’s a veteran knows what losing a buddy of more than…well a lot of years anyway…means.  Taps for SFC William Crum, USA Ret, RVN 1969-71 (1st ID), USAR 1972-95 (84th DIV ((TNG)); hoist one for me and smoke ’em if you’ve got’ em.

RIP buddy, see you on the other side.

Advertisements