A vivid focus on the past

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A vivid focus on the past

August 8, 1996  by Pamela Cressey

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Brass plate on Ellicott’s transit marked with his current place of residence, not his ancestral home, Ellicott City, Maryland. Courtesy, National Museum of American History.

Some times I have difficulty imagining the past even in a town as well preserved as Alexandria. In these cases I jump into historical writings of the period, which bring the past into vivid focus. I also love to wander through historic house museums and historic landscapes to capture a mental picture and feel for history.

The Alexandria moments which I would like to see include the sensational, such as the occupation of Alexandria by federal troops in 1861, as well as less dramatic events which still shaped America’s history. For instance, I have tried to imagine when the District of Columbia boundary survey began on Jones Point in 1791. Maybe it is my archaeological bent for surveying tools, but I think that being in this camp and watching Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker overcome environmental, labor and political difficulties with the most high-tech tools of the time would be inspiring.

Alas, this sense of the past is not fully evoked while walking through Jones Point today. But you can take a step into the past by reading Silvio Bedini’s excellent biography, "The Life of Benjamin Banneker" and by visiting the National Museum of American History. Bedini’s chapter entitled "The Great Adventure" chronicles the men’s work and the pivotal nature of the district survey in Banneker’s life and, ultimately, public acknowledgment as the "first black man of science" in America. It was through the use of Ellicott’s fine instruments while in the Jones Point camp from February through April that Banneker completed calculations leading to his first "Almanack and Ephemeries" for 1792.

You can also visit the exhibit, "After the Revolution," at American History. Snake through all the interesting exhibits [be sure and notice all the wonderful redwares on loan from the Alexandria Archaeology Museum] until you find a little room to the left entitled "The Systematic Spirit." Gathered together are some wonderful tools, as well as life size models of Banneker and Ellicott conducting their survey work. The exhibit discusses the scientific view of the late 18th century which considered the universe as a "well ordered mechanism set in motion by the creator." There was a belief that the natural world could be both understood and controlled by science. Hence, accurate recording methods were always sought. Deborah Warner, Curator of the Physical Sciences Collection, notes that Americans were testing modern European survey techniques and executing them precisely. Ellicott’s methods and instruments were the best of their time.

The National Museum of American History has a large collection of scientific instruments, including Ellicott’s surveying tools, many of which were donated by his family. These include a transit built by Ellicott and used on Jones Point to run straight lines and observe the sun to regulate his clocks. Also on display is an astronomical regulator with a precise gridiron pendulum. Although made in England, Ellicott modified it and his name appears on the face. He used three English brass telescopes, a portable quadrant, and zenith sectors to establish longitude and latitude. According to Bedini in his book "Thinkers and Tinkers: Early American Men of Science", the large zenith sector was "the most accurate and sophisticated scientific instrument on the North American continent in that period...."

The Smithsonian’s collection is a treasure not only for everyone interested in science, but for us as Alexandrians. We can appreciate the beauty of these brass and wood instruments and know that they were used here 205 years ago to begin establishing the boundaries of the nation’s capital. If you are walking your dog on Jones Point, look up to the sun, moon and stars and imagine yourself making history with these instruments.

Photo caption: Transit and Equal Altitude Instrument constructed by Andrew Ellicott in 1789 and used for his state-of-the-art boundary surveys of the District of Columbia, New York State and the Spanish border. Courtesy, National Museum of American History.