Molly Welsh and Banna Ka

by Roy H. Williams on November 16, 2015

Roy H. Williams · Invisible Heros · November 16, 2015

Pendulum in Action, invisible heroes, astronomerMolly Welsh was an English peasant girl accused of stealing milk in the late 1600s. The punishment for milk-theft in those days was death. Fortunately for Molly and for America, her sentence was commuted to banishment to “the colonies.”

After serving 7 years as an indentured servant, Molly bought a small farm outside Baltimore and married an African slave named Banna Ka. In those days, the law dictated that if a child’s mother was a slave, then the child would be a slave. But if the mother was a free woman, then the child would be free as well. Thus, the daughter of Molly and Banna Ka, ‘Mary Bannaky’, was free, as were all her children.

In due time, Mary Bannaky married a slave named Robert, who took Mary’s last name in marriage since he had none of his own. Their son Benjamin ‘Banneker’, was born November 9, 1731. He was taught to read and write by his English grandmother, Molly Welsh, the wife of Banna Ka.

When he was 22, Benjamin borrowed a pocket watch from a wealthy neighbor, studied it, then crafted a clock from local hardwoods which kept accurate time for nearly 50 years. This astounding feat only added to his near-legendary reputation for making and solving mathematical puzzles:

“Divide 60 into four such parts that the first being increased by 4, the second decreased by 4, the third multiplied by 4, the fourth part divided by 4, that the sum, the difference, the product and the quotient shall be one and the same number.” – Benjamin Banneker

In later years a neighbor, George Ellicot, lent him some astronomy books and instruments when Benjamin was 57 years old. With no one to instruct him, “… and only a few semesters of elementary schooling in his childhood, Banneker taught himself the algebra, geometry, logarithms, trigonometry, and astronomy needed to become an astronomer. He also learned on his own how to use a compass, sector, and other instruments to make astronomical predictions, including that of eclipses.”

In 1789, Banneker successfully forecast a solar eclipse well in advance of the celestial event, contradicting the predictions of better-known astronomers.

In 1791, when Benjamin was 60, a survey was commissioned for what was known as the Federal Territory. One of the surveyors, Andrew Ellicot, had heard of the genius of Banneker and hired him to be an assistant on the project. Benjamin was working on an astronomical almanac at the time, and was corresponding regularly with Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State. On August 19, 1791, Banneker sent a manuscript of his Almanac to Jefferson, who later wrote, “I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of… stature.” Jefferson promised Banneker that he would send his Almanac to Condorcet at the Académie des Sciences in Paris. A copy of Jefferson’s letter to Condorcet is in the Library of Congress.

When he became too old to work on his farm, Banneker sold it to the Ellicot family on condition that he would be allowed to live in the farmhouse for the rest of his days. He spent his final years alone in the farmhouse carrying out the scientific experiments that filled many scientific journals.

On October 26, 1806, the day of Banneker’s funeral, his farmhouse burnt to the ground – probably the work of jealous racists. Banneker’s laboratory, his journals, and the wooden clock he had made in his younger days were reduced to ashes by the flames. Only one of Banneker’s journals was outside the house at the time, and so survived. Also remaining were Banneker’s six almanacs published between 1792 and 1797, which included information on medicines and medical treatment, accurately listed ocean tides, astronomical information and eclipses, all calculated by Banneker himself.

But perhaps the greatest legacy left to us by Benjamin Banneker are the plans he reproduced from memory after designer Pierre L’Enfant withdrew from the project of laying out the “Federal Territory.” The city designed from Banneker’s memory is known today as “Washington D.C.”

Roy H. Williams

Here’s one of Banneker’s mathematical puzzles from his sole surviving journal:

A cooper and a vintner sat down for a talk,
Both being so groggy that neither could walk;
Says cooper to vintner, “I’m the first of my trade,
There’s 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 tun to a gill.”
“Then,” says the vintner, “you’re 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 or 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 the 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!


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