In the spring of 1749, the multibillion-man cicada swarm today known as Brood X emerged from the ground in rural Maryland, much to the fascination (and horror) of a black tobacco farmer in 17 years old named Benjamin Banneker, who believed it was a plague of locusts.
“The first great locust year I can remember was 1749,” Banneker wrote decades later in his astronomical journal. “I was then about seventeen when thousands of them came and climbed the trees and bushes, then I imagined that they would come to eat and destroy the fruits of the Earth, and cause a famine. in the country. So I started killing and destroying them, but soon saw that my work was in vain, so I gave up my claim.
Benjamin Banneker: the Renaissance man
Banneker, born a free man in 1731, became a brilliant self-taught mathematician, astronomer, surveyor and naturalist. At 22, he built an all-wood clock after seeing how a pocket watch worked. The hand-carved wooden clock has kept the time accurate for 40 years.
Later in life, Banneker assisted his neighbor George Ellicott in the original surveying of the District of Columbia by calibrating Ellicott’s field clock using the movement of the stars. In 1791 Banneker sent his almanac – one of the first published in America – to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, along with a letter pleading for freedom and equal rights for all black Americans.
But for all of Banneker’s accomplishments, he’s rarely recognized as one of the first scientific observers to calculate the 17-year life cycle of the remarkable periodic cicada, the oldest insect on the planet.
“The history books talk about the wooden clock and the DC investigation, but there is hardly any information about the work he did with the cicada,” says Janet Barber, who along with her husband Asamoah Nkwanta, published a 2014 article which was the first to document Banneker’s handwritten notes on the cicada.
Banneker Notes Cicadas 17 Year Cycle
After witnessing this first memorable cicada swarm in 1749, Banneker closely observed three other emergences during his lifetime (1766, 1783 and 1800) and summarized his findings in his handwritten astronomical diary, of which Barber and Nkwanta have obtained from the Maryland Center for History and Culture.
“So that if I ventured to express it,” Banneker wrote in June 1800, “Their periodic return is seventeen years, but they, like comets, only stay with us for a short time – The female has a prick in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she pierces the branches of trees, and in them holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies and falls, then the egg by some occult cause plunges a great depth into the earth and there continues for the Space of seventeen years as mentioned above.
Barber and Nkwanta say it was just “thrilling” to read Banneker’s discovery in his own “pristine” storyline. Banneker, whose father was once a slave and mother was of mixed descent, learned to read and write from his grandmother. He sometimes attended schools run by Quakers, who were ardent abolitionists. Banneker was only introduced to astronomy at the age of 57 and borrowed astronomical material and texts from Ellicott, a prominent Quaker businessman.
Banneker immersed himself in the study of astronomy and devised the writing of an astronomical almanac to prove the intellectual capacity of blacks, free or enslaved. With the support of the Ellicotts and other abolitionists, Banneker published his almanac and sent a copy to Jefferson, who maintained a notoriously confrontational attitude towards slavery. Jefferson was duly impressed.
“No organization wants to see such evidence when you exhibit more than I do,” Jefferson wrote to Banneker, “That nature has given our black brothers talents equal to those of other colors of men, and that the appearance of a lack of them is due simply to the degraded condition of their existence in Africa and America. “
Banneker’s neglected scientific contributions
Banneker died in 1806 a month before his 75th birthday. Tragedy struck at his funeral when someone set fire to his cabin with most of his diaries and personal papers. Fortunately, the Ellicotts were in possession of Banneker’s handwritten astronomical journal, which family descendants donated to the then-Maryland Historical Society in 1987. Barber and Nkwanta began their research into the writings of Banneker’s cicada in 2004, driven by the desire to shed light on more often than not. the neglected contributions of black scientists.
“I want kids in school today to know him and recognize Benjamin Banneker as a scientist, astronomer and mathematician,” says Barber, “and to know that he too was part of the discovery of the emergence of the cicada and how they behave. “
In his journal, Banneker concluded his article on cicadas by describing the musical cacophony produced by a horde of mated insects:
“I like to forget to inform, that if their life is short, they are happy, they start singing or making a noise from the first time they come out of the Earth until they die, the game the backmost rots, and it doesn’t seem like it is pain for them as they keep singing until they die.