Benjamin Banneker- The Man
(1731 – 1806) Self-taught mathematician and astronomer, clock maker, publisher.
Born in Maryland, Banneker’s father and grandfather were former slaves. His grandmother, Molly Walsh, was an indentured servant from England.
Banneker was a successful tobacco farmer with a boundless curiosity about the way things worked. In 1753, after encountering a pocket watch for the first time, he became fascinated and insisted on borrowing it so he could take it apart and examine how it operated. He sketched all of the pieces and reassembled it in full working order. His study and investigation led him to build a large wooden replica, complete with a bell, that kept accurate time for over 40 years. It was the first striking clock to be made entirely in America.
This success compelled Banneker to turn to watch and clock making. One of his customers, Joseph Ellicott, was a surveyor who needed an accurate timepiece to make correct calculations of the location of the stars used to locate a surveyor’s position on earth. Impressed with his work, Ellicott lent Banneker books on mathematics and astronomy, which led to his next fascination – astronomy.
At 58, Banneker began to study astronomy. He became known as the Sable Astronomer, compiling ephemeris – information tables that provide the apparent positions of the sun, moon, and planets at a given moment in time at a given point on the earth – for annual almanacs that he published from 1791 to 1796. Banneker sent the first of his almanacs to then-Secretary of State and author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, with a plea for justice for African Americans that Banneker likened to the experience of the colonies under the oppression of Britain. Though he did not help abolish slavery, Jefferson was impressed and sent a copy of the almanac to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris as evidence of the talent of blacks. Banneker’s work helped convince many that blacks have the same capacity for intellectual achievement as whites.
1791 was a busy year for Banneker, who was appointed by President George Washington to a three-man team to conduct the first survey of Federal District, now Washington, D.C. Pierre L’Enfant, the architect charged with planning the city, took the plans for the capital when he was dismissed from the project because of his temper. Banneker saved the federal government time and money when he recreated the plans from memory.
Meanwhile, Banneker maintained his farm, published a treatise on bees, did a mathematical study on the cycle of the seventeen-year locust, and became a pamphleteer for the anti-slavery movement.
In 1980, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp in his honor.
Books about Benjamin Banneker:
Baskes Litwin, Laura. Benjamin Banneker: Astronomer and mathematician. (Springfield, NJ: Enslow), 1999.
Bedini, Silvio A. The Life of Benjamin Banneker : the First African-American Man of Science. 2nd ed., rev. and expanded. (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society), 1999.
Lewis, Claude. Benjamin Banneker: The Man Who Saved Washington. (New York: McGraw Hill), 1970.
Patterson, Lillie. Benjamin Banneker: Genius of Early America. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press), 1978.
Wilson, Ruth. Our Blood and Our Tears: Black Freedom Fighters. (New York: Putnam), 1972.
The Banneker Center for Economic Justice, available at www.progress.org/banneker/bb.html;
“The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences,” available at www.princeton.edu/~mcbrown/display/banneker.html;
“Mathematicians of the African Diaspora,” available at www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/special/banneker-benjamin.html;
“Benjamin Banneker Biography” by Nick Greene at About.com, available at space.about.com/od/astronomerbiographies/a/bannekerbio.htm; and
“Benjamin Banneker,” AbsoluteAstronomy, available at www.absoluteastronomy.com/encyclopedia/B/Be/Benjamin_Banneker.htm