Benjamin Banneker


Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught mathematician, outstanding astronomer, author of almanacs, surveyor, humanitarian and inventor. He was born near Baltimore, Maryland, in 1731; he was the only child of a free mulatto mother and African father, who purchased his own freedom from slavery. Banneker lived all of his life on his parent’s farm on the Patapsco River in Baltimore County. He attended integrated private schools; obtained an eighth grade education by the age of 15 and excelled in mathematics. He took over his parents’ farm and became an excellent farmer.

Josef Levi, a travelling salesman, showed Banneker a pocket watch, something which he had never seen before. He became so fascinated over the watch that Levi gave it to him. He took the watch home and spent days taking it apart and putting it back together. In 1753, using the watch as a model, Banneker produced the first wooden clock every built in the United States. It was made entirely of wood, and each gear was carved by hand. His clock kept perfect time, striking every hour, for more than forty years. News of the clock created such a sensation that people came from all over to see it, and the genius who made it.

During the revolutionary war period, George Ellicot, a neighbour, introduced Banneker to the science of astronomy, which he rapidly mastered. His aptitude in mathematics and knowledge of astronomy enabled him to predict the solar eclipse that took place on April 14, 1789. In 1792, Banneker began publishing an almanac that was widely read and became the main reference for farmers in the Mid-Atlantic states. It offered weather data, recipes, medical remedies, poems and anti-slavery essays. This almanac was the first scientific book written by a Black American, and it was published annually for more than a decade.

Beneker’s major reputation stems from his service as a surveyor on the six-man team which helped design the blueprints for Washington, DC. President Washington had appointed Banneker, making him the first Black presidential appointee in the United States. Benneker helped in selecting the sites for the US Capitol building, the US Treasury building, the White House and other Federal buildings. When the chairman of the civil engineering team, Major L’Enfant, abruptly resigned and returned to France with the plans, Banneker’s photographic memory enabled him to reproduce them in their entirety. Washington, DC, with its grand avenues and buildings, was completed and stands today as a monument to Banneker’s genius.

Banneker’s preoccupation with scientific matters in no way diminished his concern for the plight of Blacks. In a twelve-page letter to Thomas Jefferson, he refuted the statement that “Blacks were inferior to Whites”. Jefferson changed his position and, as a testimonial, sent a copy of Banneker’s almanac to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. Another was used in Britain’s House of Commons to support an argument for the education of Blacks. Banneker was living proof that “the strength of mind is in no way connected with the colour of the skin”.

Banneker’s predictions were consistently accurate, except for his prediction of his own death. Living four years longer than he had predicted, Banneker died on October 25, 1806, wrapped in a blanket observing the stars through his telescope.