Encyclopedia Brunoniana

West, Benjamin

Benjamin West (1730-1813), professor of mathematics and natural history, was born in Rehoboth, Massachusetts, in March of 1730. He had an early aptitude for mathematics and was largely self-educated, borrowing books from his friends. In 1753 he moved to Providence and opened a school. When this venture proved unprofitable, he opened a dry-goods store and bookstore, which did not last after the beginning of the Revolutionary War. During the war he manufactured clothes for the troops, and when the war was over, he opened another school. He had in the meantime become well-known as an astronomer. With Joseph Brown he observed the transit of Venus on June 3, 1769, from a platform on an East Side street later named Transit Street. Another street in the area was given the name of Planet Street. The publication by West of An Account of the Observation of Venus upon the Sun the Third Day of June 1769 and his observation of a comet in July of 1770 established his reputation, and he received honorary master of arts degrees from both Harvard and Rhode Island College (Brown) in that year. Two years later he received an honorary degree from Dartmouth.

West was also well known for his almanacs, the first of which, An Almanack, for the year of our Lord Christ, 1763..., was published by William Goddard on Providence’s first printing press. For a Boston edition of the almanac, West took the name Bickerstaff, originated by Jonathan Swift, for his title, Bickerstaff’s Boston Almanac for the Year of Our Lord 1768. Later almanacs, some of which were not of West’s making, continued to bear the Bickerstaff name. In 1781 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1786 he was appointed professor of mathematics and astronomy at Rhode Island College, an appointment which was in fact a lectureship and which he did not take up until 1788, after he returned from a year of teaching mathematics at the Protestant Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. In 1798, his last year at the College, his title was changed to Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. He retired to Newport to open a school for navigation in his home. In 1802 he became postmaster of Providence, a post which he held until his death on August 26, 1813.