Benjamin Banneker and the Cicadas

Published on May 21, 2021


Benjamin Banneker and the Cicadas

The name Benjamin Banneker is well known in our area—and to students of American history.

Banneker was one of the first African American intellectuals and scientists. Born in 1731 to a free African American woman and a former slave, Banneker was an accomplished mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and writer. He was a landowner, farmer, and inventor. He was perhaps most famous for constructing a clock entirely out of wood, which kept accurate time and chimed on the hour—possibly the first such timepiece made in the colonies. He taught himself mathematics and astronomy, assisted on the survey team that established the original borders of Washington, DC, and carried on correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, urging him to help bring an end to slavery.

Banneker combined his interests into a profitable business by writing the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris. In these books he listed tides, astronomical information, and eclipses that he had accurately calculated. He was a keen observer of the natural world, and the books were a commercial success.

In 1800, he wrote about the “locust” that he had observed in 1749 when he was 17, and then again in 1766 when he was 34, and then again in 1783 when he was 51. He may not have been the only scientist to notice the cycle, but in April of 1800 he anticipated their reappearance again, accurately predicting the life cycle of what we now know to be the Brood X cicadas.

That’s right—our cicadas. 221 years and 13 generations of cicadas later, we are hearing and seeing and experiencing what Benjamin Banneker experienced across his life. It’s an easy drive up to the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum near Ellicott City where the farmer-scientist made his observations.

Only one of Banneker’s journals survives, and it contains his recollections of the rise of the cicadas at three points during his lifetime.  It is just a few short paragraphs, and the values of the naturalist, scientist, and almanac author are all apparent. Among his observations Banneker describes what he calls the cicada’s “song.”

He wrote, “…if their lives are Short they are merry, they begin to Sing or make a noise from the first they come out of Earth till they die.” Then, as if to emphasize an appreciation developed over a lifetime, he stated it again: “they still continue on Singing till they die.”

What can we learn from Benjamin Banneker’s observations of the very same swarm of cicadas that we are now experiencing? Perhaps, most importantly, the cicadas are reminding all of us at Adventist HealthCare to remember our own “song” that comes alive through our RISES values, spreading joy to our communities as we extend God’s care through the ministry of physical, mental and spiritual healing.

As you encounter the cicadas in our region during this special year and as you listen to their endless and persistent song, I challenge each of us to reflect on ways in which we can “sing” into the life of someone else an extra amount of encouragement, joy, peace and healing. 

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