Benjamin Banneker, the African-American Mathematician Who May Have Saved Washington, D.C.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 

Many people who have a passing familiarity with Washington, D.C. know it was originally styled after famous European locales by architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, then completed by Andrew Ellicott after L’Enfant was given the boot in 1792. Too few tourists and history fans, however, know that the U.S. capital might have been a very different place if not for the surveying work of Benjamin Banneker—a highly accomplished mathematician, astronomer, and scholar who challenged Thomas Jefferson and his peers to recognize African-American achievement when it was right under their noses (and feet).

Benjamin Banneker was born November 9, 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland, to Robert and Mary Banneker. While scholars still debate almost all the specifics of his background and early life, according to the most popular story, both sides of his family suffered under enslavement in the soon-to-be United States. Although records are scarce, it's said that Benjamin’s maternal grandmother, a woman named Molly Welsh, was falsely convicted of theft in England and sentenced to indentured servitude in Maryland (not an uncommon practice at the time). After earning her freedom, she rented land in Baltimore County and purchased two slaves to help farm it. Several years later, after the farming operation was established, she freed both men.

One of them, who is said to have been abducted from a royal family in Africa earlier in his life, displayed a keen interest in astronomy and other scientific subjects. He was called Bannake or Bankka, and Molly Welsh married him, violating state law that forbid marriage to slaves. Later, their daughter Mary and her husband—a Guinean man who’d been abducted, enslaved, and then baptized as Robert and freed—chose to adopt the surname Banneker at the time of their own marriage. Just a few years after regaining his freedom, records show that Robert was able to purchase a 100-acre farm (possibly the same one his mother-in-law rented), where his family would live out much of their lives and where his son’s scholarship would bloom.

Benjamin Banneker grew up as one of only 200 free African-Americans among 13,000 whites and 4000 slaves in Baltimore County. His experience with formal instruction was limited to a brief stretch in a one-room, mixed-race Quaker schoolhouse, but he was a keen study from his earliest years. Perhaps with his doting grandmother Molly’s help, he learned to read and soon became especially interested in mathematics and mechanics, often performing calculations and experiments on his own.

Once he was old enough to work on the family farm, Banneker settled into a lifestyle that combined this work with scholarly achievement. After his father’s death when Banneker was 27, he continued running the farm with his mother and sisters. The horses, cows, garden, and multiple beehives he kept enabled a simple, comfortable life for the family, according to one 19th-century account presented to the Maryland Historical Society. Using crop rotation and irrigation techniques that wouldn’t catch on in the U.S. for many decades, he also raised profitable tobacco crops that were sold alongside his produce in the Ellicott family’s store. Taking heed of food shortages during the Revolutionary War, Banneker also swapped tobacco out for wheat to help feed American soldiers.

Throughout his life, Elizabeth Ross Haynes writes, Banneker “found time to study all the books which he could borrow.” He became well-versed in topics throughout the sciences and humanities. The 19th-century account presented to the Maryland Historical Society remembered Banneker as “an acute observer, whose active mind was constantly receiving impulses from what was taking place around him.”

For example, one rather illustrative 1797 journal entry reads:

Standing at my door I heard the discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time, after the discharge, the small shot came rattling about me, one or two of which struck the house; which plainly demonstrates that the velocity of sound is greater than that of a cannon bullet.

Some historians have speculated that Banneker’s many childhood lessons with his grandmother Molly, who may have gained a sophisticated understanding of astronomy from Bannake, could have fostered his particular expertise with the subject. However, it was his prowess with mathematics for which he first became renowned throughout Baltimore County, according to a 1912 article. As word spread of his exceptional skills, far-away scholars began sending Banneker complex mathematical problems, and they continued to do so throughout his life. Banneker reportedly always solved them, often responding in verse and with a fresh problem.

As a young man, Banneker also gained fame and admiration for miles around due to one of his earliest known mechanical feats: building a working clock almost entirely out of wood from scratch. It may have been the first clock ever assembled completely from American parts, according to Haynes (although other historians have since disputed this). Banneker reportedly only had a borrowed pocket watch to use for reference on clockwork mechanisms, while his wooden version contained functioning, carved-to-scale components. The clock continued working until a few days after Banneker’s death, when a fire destroyed his cabin home and many of its contents—clock included.

However, Banneker’s accomplished scholarship remained mostly unknown outside the region until he encountered the Ellicott family. In 1772, the Quaker Ellicotts purchased the land next door to Banneker’s and began building new gristmill facilities there. Banneker’s fascination with the mill’s mechanics made him a frequent visitor to the site. In keeping with Quaker tradition, the similarly scholarly Ellicotts were adamant proponents of racial equality, and they collaborated with Banneker as well as encouraged wider application of—and recognition for—his unique skills.

George Ellicott, a close friend of Banneker’s for decades, was himself a student of astronomy and eagerly shared both his resources and queries with his neighbor. Banneker took great advantage of the borrowed tools and books in performing exquisite astronomical calculations, such as predicting a solar eclipse near-exactly in 1789. He also began building the foundations for several atlases and technical treatises he’d release in the decades before his death. In 1791, George’s cousin, Major Andrew Ellicott, gave Banneker a national stage, after Andrew had gone to George requesting help with a new job. George, being otherwise busy, suggested Banneker's assistance. The job was surveying land along the Potomac River for what would soon be the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

Ellicott's plan for Washington, D.C. Image credit: Leeann Cafferata, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The plans for the large city were laid out by French architect and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who volunteered for service in the American Revolution’s Continental Army and was hired for the project by George Washington in 1791. Before long, however, tensions mounted over its direction and progress of the project, and when L’Enfant was fired in 1792, he took off with the plans in tow.

But according to legend, the plans weren’t actually lost: Banneker and the Ellicotts had worked closely with L’Enfant and his plans while surveying the city’s site. As the University of Massachusetts explains, Banneker had actually committed the plans to memory “[and] was able to reproduce the complete layout—streets, parks, major buildings.” However, the University of Massachusetts also points out that other historians doubt Banneker had any involvement in this part of the survey at all, instead saying that Andrew and his brother were the ones who recreated L’Enfant’s plan. It's an intriguing myth, but it may only be that.

Yet Banneker’s valuable contributions to the project drew attention, and set the stage for later correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. During the project, the Georgetown Weekly Ledger made public note of Banneker as “an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson's concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation."

Gelman Library, George Washington University // Public Domain

In 1791, Banneker had finished his “painstakingly calculated ephemeris,” or table of the position of celestial bodies, which he would publish alongside charts, literature, and humanitarian and political essays in six almanacs with 28 editions in the following six years. Upon its initial completion, he first sent a copy of the ephemeris to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, along with a famously direct, yet perfectly polite, letter challenging Jefferson’s opinion that African-Americans suffered an innate intellectual disadvantage [PDF]. Among other things, the letter observed:

Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for yourselves and for those inestimable laws, which preserved to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous that every individual ... might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof, neither could you rest satisfied [short of] their promotion from any state of degradation, to which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may have reduced them.

Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race ... and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the supreme ruler of the Universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under the state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity to which many of my brethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty, with which you are favored, and which, I hope you will willingly allow, you have received from the immediate hand of that being ... [and] that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy, you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of heaven.

Jefferson’s letter of response the same year was significantly shorter than Banneker’s, and not without traces of the mindset Banneker sought to defeat. But it also documented the scholar’s triumph in gaining some respect for his accomplishments, and in helping to dislodge certain prejudices from the minds of the era’s most learned men.

On August 30, 1791, Jefferson wrote:

SIR,

I THANK you, sincerely, for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men ; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit.

I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and Member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.

I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient Humble Servant,

THOMAS JEFFERSON.

The discrimination African-Americans suffered from Jefferson and other bigwigs is well-documented, and Banneker’s brave, considered opposition to it stands forever among his many admirable achievements. The 1854 document A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker reflected:

He appears to have been the pioneer in the movement in this part of the world, toward the improvement of his race; at a period of our history when the negro occupied almost the lowest possible grade in the scale of human beings, Banneker had struck out for himself a course, hitherto untravelled by men of his class, and had already earned a respectable position amongst men of science.

Records suggest that Banneker also suffered discrimination by lower-profile white Americans, and had his achievements belittled and questioned. Despite the many pushbacks he withstood, however, Banneker remained joyfully curious and generous of spirit throughout his life. According to A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker, he was able to slough off the bitterness of others in part thanks to his prevailing interest in study. “His equilibrium was seldom disturbed by the petty jealousies and inequalities of temper of the ignorant people,” the book notes, “with whom his situation obliged him frequently to come in contact.”

Benjamin Ellicott, who prepared extensive notes on Banneker’s life for the Maryland Historical Society, remembered him as such in a letter:

Although his mode of life was regular and extremely retired, living alone, having never married,--cooking his own victuals and washing his own clothes, and scarcely ever being absent from home, yet there was nothing misanthropic in his character … [He was known as] kind, generous, hospitable, humane, dignified and pleasant, abounding in information on all the various subjects and incidents of the day; very modest and unassuming, and delighting in society at his own home.

Given Banneker’s wide-ranging interests and enthusiasm, then, it is perhaps fitting that a variety of parks, schools, awards, streets, businesses, and other public and private institutions and facilities all bear his name today. Admirers can learn about the accomplished scholar at Benjamin Banneker Park and Memorial in Washington, D.C., for example, or at Baltimore, Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum. Others can choose to follow in his footsteps by exploring their passions and hobbies at community centers named for Banneker in Washington, D.C., Bloomington, Indiana, and Catonsville, Maryland. It seems possible, however, that the man himself might have been most fond of—or, at least, a very frequent visitor to—Maryland’s own Banneker Planetarium.

Header images via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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Madelyn Pugh Davis, the “Girl Writer” Behind I Love Lucy

It was February 11, 1954, and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were waiting nervously at the Emmy Awards. Their costar on I Love Lucy, Vivian Vance, had already won a Best Series Supporting Actress award for her portrayal of landlady Ethel Mertz. And now, Ball and Arnaz stood on stage at the Hollywood Palladium to accept the Emmy for Best Situation Comedy for I Love Lucy.

“It wouldn’t be right to call our writers up here, and give [the Emmy] to them, would it?” Ball asked the audience. “But I wish we could.” Arnaz also gave a nod to the importance of the show’s writers: “I just want to say this—and I really mean this—I hope that next year, the Academy does not forget the writers.”

Without I Love Lucy’s three main writers—Jess Oppenheimer, Bob Carroll Jr., and Madelyn Pugh Davis—television would be missing some of its most famously funny scenes. Davis, the only female writer on I Love Lucy, wrote for all the episodes of the six-season show. She often tested the slapstick herself, becoming key to the visual gags that made the series so memorable, from a chocolate factory assembly line cranked to an impossible speed to a giant loaf of bread overflowing from an oven.

Born on March 15, 1921, Davis (originally Madelyn Pugh) grew up in Indianapolis, where her father worked at a bank's real estate department. She wanted to be a writer from the time she was a child, and crafted her first play—performed in her living room—at the age of 10. Later, she co-edited her high school newspaper alongside fellow student Kurt Vonnegut [PDF].

In 1942, she graduated from Indiana University with a journalism degree, determined to become a foreign correspondent. "Somebody pointed out that there were very few women foreign correspondents, but there were very few women anything, so it didn’t bother me," Davis wrote in her 2005 memoir Laughing With Lucy. After failing to find a job she wanted in journalism, she began working as a copywriter at an Indianapolis radio station. She was one of only a few women to work behind the scenes in radio back then—an opportunity she attributed to the relative dearth of men, who were off fighting in World War II.

The next year, she and her family moved to Los Angeles, where she found work as a staff writer at NBC Radio. She met Bob Carroll Jr. at her next staff writer gig, at CBS Radio about six months later, where she was often referred to as the "girl writer." She and Carroll became writing partners, working on comedy scripts for radio shows including The Couple Next Door and It’s a Great Life. While writing for My Favorite Husband on CBS, they got the chance to work with Ball, the star of that show. Davis would later describe Ball as fearless, someone willing to "do anything" for the sake of comedy.

It was after about two and a half years of writing for My Favorite Husband that Davis got her big break. As she tells it in Laughing With Lucy, the then-network vice president of programming for CBS West Coast, Harry Ackerman, and Ball's agent decided to give the red-headed star a try on the then-new medium of television. Ball insisted on a show featuring her real-life husband, Arnaz, but "the network didn't feel the audience would believe Lucy was married to a Cuban band leader. Lucy told them stubbornly that she was married to a Cuban band leader, and the audience would like it fine," Davis wrote.

To prove it, Ball hired Davis and Carroll to write a stage act that she and Arnaz would perform during his show on the road. Audiences roared with laughter, and the network ordered a television pilot based on the act. Ball requested that Davis, Carroll, and Jess Oppenheimer (the producer and head writer on My Favorite Husband) write I Love Lucy’s first episode. “And so we said 'I guess we better learn to write for television,'" Davis said in an interview with the Writers Guild Foundation.

Besides brainstorming funny ideas, pitching storylines, and writing dialogue, Davis also typed the scripts and acted out some of the show’s visual stunts, making sure that a woman of roughly Ball’s height and size would be able to perform them safely.

“We’d wrap Madelyn in rugs and strap her into swivel chairs and hang her out of windows, and she came through nicely,” Carroll recalled. “So I said, ‘If it works for Madelyn, it will work for Lucy.’” (Not all the gags worked, however; after one perilous trip on a unicycle resulted in Davis running into a wall and hitting her head, she "decided it was too dangerous for Lucy.")

In the scripts, Davis typed the step-by-step instructions for these physical gags in all caps, leading Ball to call them “the black stuff.” Rather than improvise these stunts, Ball relied on Davis’s detailed, highly choreographed writing to know how to move her body and when to make certain facial expressions—all for maximum comedy.

To come up with enough ideas to write hundreds of funny episodes, Davis drew on her own life for inspiration, writing jokes about her experiences picking which movie to watch or what entree to order at a restaurant. “All writers do that. You use your own experience and pretty soon, when you're doing a weekly show, you just use everything you can,” Davis told the Writers Guild Foundation.

After I Love Lucy ended, Davis continued working with Carroll, writing for other Ball productions such as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour, The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, Life With Lucy, and the 1968 film Yours, Mine and Ours. During their 50-year working partnership, Davis and Carroll also wrote The Mothers-In-Law (which was executive produced by Desi Arnaz), produced the sitcom Alice, and co-wrote Laughing With Lucy. They were nominated for three Emmy Awards.

Davis, who married twice and had one son, died in Los Angeles in 2011 at 90 years old. Lucie Arnaz, Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, described her as a class act. “A very private person, very soft-spoken, genteel, feminine—all those lovely words you associate with great ladies. And yet she had the ability to write this wacky, insane comedy for my mother.”

Bernarr Macfadden: Bodybuilder, Publisher, and Eccentric Prophet of Physical Culture

The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo
The History Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Bernarr Macfadden, who almost single-handedly launched the twin American obsessions with diet and exercise, wanted you to picture a roaring lion when you said his name out loud. Not content with his birth name, Bernard, the young Macfadden had his name legally changed so it supposedly better resembled a roar: Bernarr.

Macfadden certainly did roar his way through life. Born August 16, 1868 as Bernard McFadden on a farm in Mill Spring, Missouri, he was orphaned by the time he was 11. Macfadden’s father died from delirium tremens (alcohol withdrawal), and his mother from tuberculosis. The young boy was briefly installed in a Chicago boarding school, then housed, equally briefly, with relatives who ran a hotel in the city. He then worked as a farm laborer in northern Illinois for two years before he took to the open road, working as a miner, a dentist's assistant, a wood chopper, a printer’s apprentice, and a water boy for a construction team.

Because he spent his childhood dreading the arrival of the same tuberculosis symptoms that had killed his mother, Macfadden grew increasingly obsessed with physical fitness and healthy eating as wards against disease. By his late teenage years, he had set himself up in St. Louis, where he diligently practiced a well-honed exercise routine that included repeat sets with dumbbells and the horizontal bar, as well as daily six-mile walks carrying a 10-pound lead bar. He also decided on his purpose in life: spreading the gospel of exercise.

Around 1887, he rented a gym space in St. Louis, Missouri, and set a bold sign out front: "Bernarr Macfadden-Kinistherapist-Teacher of Higher Physical Culture." If you've never heard of a kinistherapist before, neither had Macfadden. The nonexistent profession just sounded good to him. And it sounded good to the people of St. Louis too. In a short while, business was booming.

But Macfadden had bigger dreams than St. Louis could fulfill. His drive to spread the gospel of physical culture soon led him to leave behind his St. Louis gym and head for New York City, where he rented a place in Manhattan and invited the press over for a “Physical Culture Matinee.” Surprisingly, the press actually showed up; their entertainment that afternoon consisted of Macfadden “chatting and posing in an interesting way,” according to one observer.

In 1899, at 30 years old, Macfadden launched Physical Culture magazine as a showcase for his ideas on bodybuilding, exercise, and diet. Those ideas boiled down to a simple formula: eat good foods, exercise often, and go on occasional fasts (his focus on fasting is seen as the precursor to today's popular ketogenic diet, by some accounts). However, his enthusiasm often overwhelmed his sensible ideas. He frequently campaigned against doctors and vaccinations, and generalized American “prudery.”

A portrait of Bernarr Macfadden
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Despite its quirky character, Physical Culture was a near-immediate hit. Macfadden’s tireless promotion and obvious zeal for his ideas were aided by convenient timing: Just as the magazine launched, Americans were turning for the first time en masse to improving their diet and exercise routines, encouraged by a similar craze in Britain as well as nationalistic fitness efforts like the gymnasiums favored by German-American immigrants. Macfadden was in the right place at the right time to be the prophet of the diet and exercise movement.

Like other self-styled prophets before him, however, Macfadden’s outsized personality became one of his greatest obstacles. He was given to fits of mooing and braying, which he believed aided in voice development. He wore his hair thick, wild, and long (at least by early 20th century standards) as proof of the efficacy of his cure for baldness (a “cure,” by the way, that involved vigorous pulling on the hair). He believed shoes were unnatural, so he frequently tramped about barefoot. He slept on the floor, with windows wide open even in winter. His hatred for the fashion industry led him to wear his clothes for years until they were literally hanging from his body in tatters. This last habit led to some unfortunate confrontations with the doormen at his New York apartment building, who frequently mistook him for a hobo.

Nevertheless, Physical Culture magazine made Macfadden wealthy and provided the seed money to launch twin empires in publishing and health. By the 1920s, he owned 10 highly successful magazines and was worth upward of $30 million. His publishing ideas were innovative and profitable, despite their often tawdry character. He launched the first true confession magazine, True Story, in 1919, as well as a number of other magazines in the same vein, such as True Romance and True Detective. He also launched the legendary New York Evening Graphic, one of the forerunners of modern tabloid newspapers. With article titles such as “I Taught My Wife to Drink,” “I Am the Mother of My Sister’s Son,” and “I Killed Him, What’ll I Do?,” the sordid stories of sin, guilt, and redemption in Macfadden's titles were hugely popular with the American masses.

The cover of "True Detective Mysteries," July 1926
Internet Archive // Public Domain

Macfadden simultaneously spread his Physical Culture empire into the health arena as well. He opened a chain of Physical Culture restaurants, with the gimmick of charging one cent for every item on the menu, following the idea that the best foods for you were also the cheapest. He also established four spas, dubbed “healthoriums,” in upstate New York, Long Island, the New Jersey Pine Barrens, and Battle Creek, Michigan. At the Macfadden spas, participants could aim to achieve “an absolute purity of their blood through a regimen of exercise, fresh air, bland diet, and no medicines.” Macfadden’s empire-building reached its zenith at his spa in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which he vigorously—and unsuccessfully—campaigned to have incorporated into a new town dubbed “Physical Culture City.”

Macfadden’s outsized ego and overbearing convictions reportedly made him a difficult marital partner. His first two marriages quickly ended in divorce. His third marriage, arguably more successful, came about in a particularly Macfadden-ian way: Bernarr was in England, judging a contest he’d organized to find “the most perfectly formed female.” The winner was one Mary Williamson, a competitive swimmer, who was subsequently convinced to become Macfadden's third bride. He later would assert that her prize for winning the contest was … him.

Their marriage survived 34 years and produced seven children, named (by Bernarr, of course): Byrnece, Beulah, Beverly, Braunda, Byrne, Berwyn, and Bruce (although some sources call him Brewster). In 1946, Mary obtained a divorce, in drawn-out and very public proceedings.

Bernarr MacFadden and family members at the Capitol, where they were demonstrating how to keep fit to legislators.
Bernarr MacFadden and family members at the Capitol, where they were demonstrating how to keep fit to legislators.
Harris & Ewing, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Meanwhile, Macfadden’s fortunes began to diminish. The New York Evening Graphic, despite some early success, was quickly derided as one of America’s worst papers—thanks to sleazy headlines like “Weed Parties in Soldiers’ Love Nest.” The newspaper’s gradual collapse drained millions from Macfadden’s bank account. An ill-conceived run for the Republican nominee for president in 1936 also led to widespread public derision for “Body Love Macfadden.” A third blow was the failure of his chain of one-cent restaurants; the gimmick couldn’t withstand the reality of restaurant overhead.

Macfadden was married a fourth time, briefly, to a woman half his age, who shortly after had the marriage annulled. He sold off his remaining magazine interests in the 1940s and spent his last years, and the last of his fortune, on a variety of stunts and schemes. He ran for the U.S. Senate in Florida, offered a prize for the best biographical play about his life, and, when he turned 81, celebrated the accomplishment by parachuting out of an airplane. That feat became an annual event for Macfadden, who proudly defied his advancing years by parachuting into the Hudson River every birthday, and once, when he turned 84, into the Seine in Paris. He said he’d continue every year until he turned 120.

Sadly, he died a few years later, at age 87, in 1955. His cause of death, depending on the source, was either cerebral thrombosis (a blood clot in a cerebral vein in the brain) or an attack of jaundice following a three-day fast. By the time he died, Macfadden had about $50,000 left of his fortune and was generally regarded as an eccentric hovering on the edges of fame, always angling for a new way to see his name in the paper.

Macfadden’s ideas, however, outlived him, and some of them ended up having some merit. He was one of the first Americans to loudly proclaim the benefits of exercise and dieting. He railed against corsets and white bread, both of which have substantially declined in popularity. Today, you can find thousands of people jogging and lifting weights in cities across the country—highly unusual pursuits before Macfadden started spreading the doctrine of Physical Culture.

Additional Source: Great American Eccentrics

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