Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker was an African-American farmer, self-taught mathematician, inventor, surveyor, astronomer and humanitarian. He was born in Maryland on 9th November 1731 and spent most of his life on the tobacco farm that was bequeathed to him. Sadly little is known about this remarkable man, remarkable because of what he achieved during the period in which he lived, in the western world, the Age of Enlightenment that included scientific discoveries.

The internet biographies have conflicting interpretations. For example, undisputedly he was of African descent but some biographies suggest that he also had Irish descent. The other is his role in the survey of the new capital of America, what was to become Washington DC.

Although he received little schooling, Banneker demonstrated exceptional scientific ability. In his early 20s he constructed a clock made almost entirely of wood, with all the internal gears carved by hand.

He built America’s first home-grown clock–out of wood

Banneker was 22 in 1753, writes PBS, and he’d “seen only two timepieces in his lifetime–a sundial and a pocket watch.” At the time, clocks weren’t common in the United States. Still, based on these two devices, PBS writes, “Banneker constructed a striking clock almost entirely out of wood, based on his own drawings and calculations. The clock continued to run until it was destroyed in a fire forty years later.”

Smithsonian Magazine Three Things to Know About Benjamin Banneker’s Pioneering Career by Kat Eschner November 9th 2017

A moveable timepiece was essential for surveying in the field, the measure of longitude and the study of the stars, astronomy. Looking at the history of timepieces, mass produced watches weren’t available until the 1800s. During the period in which Banneker lived, the race was on to find an accurate clock combined with a reference point to measure longitude. This was especially important when at sea, many lives and ships had been lost because capatains were unable to keep their precise location at sea. Banneker’s achievement was remarkable. See A Chronicle of Timekeeping below.

Thomas Jefferson appointed Banneker to the commission charged with planning the construction of Washington D.C. to work alongside Major Andrew Ellicott. He helped survey the site of the national capital between 1791 and 1793. This was despite his age and infirmities. The terrain around the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers were inhospitable.

Widely known as the compiler of The Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris, which was published annually from 1792 to 1802.

From the Smithonian BENJAMIN BANNEKER’S 1793 ALMANACK AND EPHEMERIS

Banneker spent many nights studying the stars and was able to predict a solar eclipse for April 14, 1789. Two leading astronomers disagreed with his calculations, but Banneker was right. In addition to listing holidays and eclipses, the almanacs provided weather and medical information, the hours of sunrise and sun set, and a tide table for Chesapeake Bay.

 In 1791 he sent the manuscript of his first almanac to revolutionary leader and future U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state. With the manuscript, Banneker included a letter in which he protested against slavery and disputed Jefferson’s claim that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites. On receiving the manuscript, Jefferson changed his opinion and sent a copy to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. Abolitionists used the almanacs as evidence of the intellectual capabilities of blacks.

In addition to his work in mathematics and astronomy, Benjamin Banneker proposed that the U.S. government establish a Department of Peace. He also advocated free public education for all children and the elimination of the death penalty.  

Further Reading about Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum: “In 1985, the land [on which the park and museum are located] was rediscovered as Banneker’s farmstead. A non-profit, the Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, was founded and Baltimore County purchased the land with the goal to preserve it for the public. In 1998, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held for the newly built museum.”

Engineering Village: American Black History Month: Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) by Megan Stalnaker on 02/01/2016: Benjamin Banneker was also an advocate to eradicate slavery. In 1791, he boldly wrote to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, to scold him and others of hypocrisy in drafting the Declaration of Independence. He quoted Jefferson’s words stating that, “all men are created equal” saying, “in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” Banneker also demanded Jefferson and other Declaration of Independence participants to, “wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to” African Americans.

Black Past Benjamin Banneker: In 1788, George Ellicott, a keen amateur astronomer, lent Banneker books and instruments that enabled him to construct tables predicting the positions of the stars and future solar and lunar eclipses. Three years later, Andrew Ellicott hired Banneker to assist him in surveying the boundaries of the ten-mile square site of the future Federal capital of Washington, D.C.  In that year, too, Banneker won the backing of several Philadelphia, Pennsylvania supporters of the anti-slavery cause to print his work in the popular form of an almanac. Its 1792 publication, introduced by letters pointing out how Banneker’s accomplishments disproved the myth of Negro inferiority, was a considerable success and produced twenty-seven further editions of “Banneker’s Almanac” over the next five years.  Banneker sent a manuscript copy of his work to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson along with a plea against the continuance of black slavery and received a courteous, if evasive, reply. But Jefferson praised Banneker as “a very respectable mathematician” in forwarding the manuscript to the notice of the French Academy of Sciences.

A Chronicle of Timekeeping in Scientific America

Smithsonian Magazine Three Things to Know About Benjamin Banneker’s Pioneering Career by Kat Eschner November 9th 2017

Benjamin Banneker and the Survey of the District of Columbia, 1791 by Silvio A. Bedini: Confirmation of this appointment occurs in Jefferson’s letter relating to Banneker’s almanac, which he addressed to the Marquis de Condorcet in the following year, and in which he commented about Banneker (Letter from Thomas Jefferson – later President Thomas jefferson – to the Marquis de Condorcet dated August 31, The Jefferson-Coolidge Papers, Manuscript Collection, Massachusetts Historical Society, 7S.I.38-43.) that:

I procured him [Banneker] to be employed under one of our chief directors [George Ellicott] in laying out the new Federal City [Washington DC] on the Patowmac. . . .

See also Founders Online: From Thomas Jefferson to Condorcet, 30 August 1791 the ‘negro’ in question is Benjamin Banneker

Famous Black Inventors: Like a lot of early inventors, Benjamin Banneker was primarily self-taught. The son of former slaves, Benjamin worked on the family tobacco farm and received some early education from a Quaker school. But most of his advanced knowledge came from reading, reading and more reading. At 15 he took over the farm and invented an irrigation system to control water flow to the crops from nearby springs. As a result of Banneker’s innovation, the farm flourished – even during droughts.

Reconstructing Molly Welsh: Race, Memory and the Story of Benjamin Banneker’s Grandmother – A Master’s Thesis Presented by Sandra Perot. Perot was of the firm belief that the Irish indentured labourer, Molly Welsh, was Benjamin Banneker’s grandmother. She says: Of the over one hundred biographies and stories about Benjamin Banneker that
have been published, only a handful can be said to be grounded in “reliable” sources
gathered from individuals who met or knew Banneker personally. These biographies
were authored by the Revolutionary War advocate James McHenry, and anti-slavery
advocates Susannah Mason, John Latrobe, Martha Tyson, and Tyson’s daughter, Anne
Kirk. Three of these authors met Banneker, and Tyson lived in the same small town as
him. Interest in Banneker did not wane as the nineteenth century came to a close.
Martha Tyson prepared two manuscripts on Benjamin Banneker.

Benjamin Banneker – Wikipedia

Benjamin Banneker: The Black Tobacco Farmer the Presidents Coundn’t Ignore – the White House Historical Association

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