M is for Mary Anning

Mary Anning statue in Bristol, bristol.acl.uk

She sells seashells by the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure.
So if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells. 

Mary did sell seashells. She was well-known for doing it at the time, though only locally, and never credited by the male scientists who took her work and used it to gain their own notoriety. They say the poem is about her, although it probably was not. Yet she did, indeed, sell seashells, found seashells, drew seashells, theorized about the age of seashells, and drew plesiosaurs. By the Lyme Regis seashore.

She also invented paleontology.

Current Lyme Regis map, southampton.ac.uk.

Mary, Mary

No, that’s another rhyme…. although her garden grows with cockle shells, so maybe… And it may be that she did not exactly invent paleontology, but paleontology didn’t exist as a scientific discipline until she collected hundreds of fossils and starting drawing, mounting, and discussing them with others. And after that it did.

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Benjamin Banneker, First Black American Intellectual: Part 2, Benjamin’s Abolitionist Almanac

Herein shall we continue the story of Benjamin Banneker, surveyor, farmer, astronomer, polymath, and noted abolitionist. Be sure to read Part One, the history of Banneker’s family and his acquisition of mathematical knowledge.

Benjamin Banneker was nearly sixty when he hit upon the idea of publishing an almanac of natural information. As a farmer, he had kept copious notes, documenting the practices of bees and noting the 17-year cycle of cicadas. Unmarried, he worked his land mostly alone, though he still chatted with his neighbor, George Ellicott. One day, Ellicott brought over a telescope. It turned Banneker’s last two decades into a whirlwind of calculation, publication, and provocation. It would make him famous again for a brief time. He would also poke the hornet’s nest.

“Do you have an answer, Ben?” the schoolmaster’s voice barked out. Startled, Ben looked up and scanned the class, faces turned to stare and giggle. “What is 23 by 7?” Without any calculation, Ben replied, “14 in the tens place and 21 which is 161.” Still, he had not been paying attention. The master picked up the book that had absorbed his young pupil, Newton’s Principia. “I’m sorry, sir,” Ben said. “I forgot to ask if I could…” The master squinted but tried to suppress a grin. “Practicing your Latin?” “Yes, sir. Perhaps you could explain this part … ‘precession of the equinoxes…'”

Alone with a Telescope

In 1788, Benjamin at 57 had continued to eke out a small harvest of apples and wheat, even as the Ellicott Mills and other larger farms had grown around him. His minor celebrity status as a clock maker had died down a bit, although the clock still kept time and the occasional passerby poked his head in to gawk. The Revolution had come and gone. The War had come and gone, too.

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Benjamin Banneker, First Black American Intellectual: Part 1, Measuring the Past

The box was heavy, both because the man inside was large and because his passing made his bearers heavy of heart. Old Benjamin was a good neighbor, always one to help and share advice. He gave to everybody, though most of those standing around the muddy grave today were dark-skinned as he was. A good man and a religious one–he loved his Bible, as the preacher noted. “A little too much,” thought 12-year-old Elijah, sighing to hear yet another homily from the Old Testament. He scratched another circle in the mud with his toe, as Ben had taught him, a line equidistant around a center point. His eye wandered again over the tops of the trees in the gray October morning, watching the weak sun trying to peer through the clouds. Or, was that a glow? Then, he smelled the smoke.

Banneker’s statue at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, photo by Frank Schulenberg.

Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was a mathematical genius, a polymath some would say, who taught himself astronomy and trigonometry and put them to work on his behalf. He was a surveyor who provided data for the layout of Washington D.C. He was a farmer who understood crop rotations and season fluctuations. He published six years of almanacs which were widely distributed across the mid-Atlantic states. He built his own clock simply from looking at the parts of a borrowed watch. And Benjamin Banneker was Black. He told Thomas Jefferson where to get off; Jefferson, apparently, didn’t like it.

Banneker’s story is so remarkable–so American in its expression of the pioneering spirit and search for freedom–that it’s going to take two posts to tell it. The more I started peeling the onion, the more there was to find. His family story is fascinating in its own right. There is also a mythology that has cropped up around him, where exaggerations have obscured the truth, and created a backwash of clarifications and reductions.

Then, there is the funeral. On the day he was buried, Banneker’s cabin with all his belongings was burned to the ground. Hard enough, for an intellectual Black man in 1790 to gain celebrity for his activities. Much harder, if most of the evidence is destroyed.

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