by Benjamin Banneker
Benjamin Banneker, a free Black man born in Oella in 1731, is one of the world’s geniuses. From his farm overlooking the land that would become Ellicott’s Mills, Banneker taught himself mathematics, astronomy, surveying, and persuasive writing.
Forty years before the Ellicotts arrived, Banneker and his family lived in the area that would become Oella. When he came of age, he inherited part of the farm, which is now the site of a museum in his honor.
To teach himself, Banneker borrowed books on Plato and Newton’s principles of mathematics from a nearby Quaker schoolteacher, Peter Heinrich, and on astronomy, surveying, and mathematics from the Ellicott family’s library.
Banneker kept scrupulous journals about his farm, read incessantly, and wrote copious letters. Starting when he was61, from 1792 to 1797, he published an almanac. Information at that time was scarce, and Banneker used his almanac to print his weather predictions, tide tables, and sun and moon cycles, carefully calculating each entry. Banneker also published anti- slavery essays as well as poetry by African-American Quaker poet Phillis Wheatley and English anti-slavery poet William Cowper.
Rejected by other publishers and with the help of the Ellicotts, Banneker found a Quaker publishing house for his almanac. Seeking a good review, the publishers sent the manuscript to Philadelphia scientist David Rittenhouse, who wrote, “I think the papers I herewith return to you a very extraordinary performance, considering the colour of the Author.” The publishers were delighted. Banneker was irked. He wrote, “I am annoyed to find that the subject of my race is so much stressed. The work is either correct or it is not. In this case, I believe it to be perfect.”
This poem, written and figured by Banneker, is one of his many mathematical puzzles, which are still used as teaching tools. He’s asking how many leaps the dog and the rabbit each took, as one fled and one pursued its prey.
Mathematicians, including the Advanced Placement exam study guides, which sometimes use this poem in testing, stand by his methods and answer.
The Puzzle of the Hound and the Hare by Benjamin Banneker When fleecy skies have Cloth’d the ground With a white mantle all around Then with a grey hound Snowy fair In milk white fields we Cours’d a Hare Just in the midst of a Champaign We set her up, away she ran, The Hound I think was from her then Just Thirty leaps or three times ten Oh it was pleasant to see How the Hare did run so timorously But yet so very Swift that I Did think she did not run but Fly When the Dog was almost at her heels She quickly turn’d, and down the fields She ran again with full Career And ’gain she turn’d to the place she were At every turn she gain’d of ground As many yards as the greyhound Could leap at thrice, and She did make, Just Six, if I do not mistake Four times She Leap’d for the dogs three But two of the Dogs leaps did agree With three of hers, nor pray declare How many leaps he took to Catch the Hare.
Just Seventy two I did Suppose,
An Answer false from thence arose,
I doubled the Sum of Seventy two,
But still I found that would not do,
I mix’d the Numbers of them both,
Which Shew’d so plain that I’ll make
Oath, Eight hundred leaps the Dog did make,
And Sixty four, the Hare to take.
“The Puzzle of the Hound and the Hare” was printed in Banneker’s Almanac in the 1790s. This poem is in the public domain.