Benjamin Banneker was an African-American astronomer, clockmaker, and publisher who was instrumental in surveying the District of Columbia.
He was born in Maryland on November 9, 1731. His maternal grandmother, Molly Walsh emigrated from England to Maryland as an indentured servant in bondage for 7 years. Later, she freed the slaves and married 1 of them.. Among their children, they had a daughter named Mary. When Mary Bannaky grew up, she also purchased a slave, Robert, whom, like her mother, she later freed and married. Robert and Mary Bannaky were the parents of Benjamin Banneker.
Banneker’s grandmother, Molly used the Bible to teach Mary’s children to read. He also learned the flute and the violin. His biographers disagree on the amount of formal education he received, some claiming an 8th grade education while others doubt he received that much. However, few dispute his intelligence. At the age of 15, he took over the operations for the family farm..
At the age of 21, Banneker’s life was changed when he saw a neighbor’s pocket watch. (Some say the watch belonged to Josef Levi, a traveling salesman.) He borrowed the watch, took it apart to draw all its pieces, then reassembled it and returned it running to its owner. Banneker then carved large-scale wooden replicas of each piece, calculating the gear assemblies himself, and used the parts to make a striking clock, the first wooden clock in the United States. The clock continued to work, striking each hour, for more than 40 years.
Driven by this fascination, he turned from farming to watch and clock making. One customer was a neighbor named George Ellicott, a surveyor. He was so impressed with his Banneker’s work and intelligence, he lent him books on mathematics and astronomy. With this help, Banneker taught himself astronomy and advanced mathematics. Starting about 1773, he turned his attention to both subjects. His study of astronomy enabled him to make the calculations to predict solar and lunar eclipses, even correctly contradicting experts of the day, and to compile an ephemeris for his Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac, which he published from 1791 through 1796. He became known as the Sable Astronomer.
In 1791, Banneker sent then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, a copy of his first almanac along with an eloquent plea for justice for African Americans, calling on the colonists’ personal experience as “slaves” of Britain and quoting Jefferson’s own words. 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 almanac helped convince many that African-Americans were not intellectually inferior to whites.
Also in 1791, Banneker was hired to assist brothers Andrew and Joseph Ellicott as part of a 6-man team to help design the new capital city, Washington, DC. This made him the 1st African-American presidential appointee. An apocryphal story says that he worked with Pierre L’Enfant and when L’Enfant threw a temper tantrum and quit, taking his drawings with him, Banneker was able to reproduce said drawings from memory. Many historians doubt the story and claim the two men never even met. True or not, it does not diminish Benjamin Banneker’s accomplishments.
In addition to his other work, he also published a treatise on bees, did a mathematical study on the cycle of the seventeen-year locust, and wrote passionately about the anti-slavery movement. Despite his change of occupation from farmer to scientist, he also continued to keep his garden. Over the years, he played host many distinguished scientists and artists of his day. Although he had predicted his own death at age 70, Benjamin Banneker actually survived another 4 years. His last walk (accompanied by a friend) came on October 9, 1806. He felt ill and went home to rest on his couch. He died later that day. (One source places the date on October 25 and the location as being wrapped in a blanket observing the nigh sky as was his habit.)
His memorial Gravestone Marker still exist at the Westchester Grade School in the Ellicott City/Oella region of Maryland, where Banneker spent his entire life except for the Federal survey. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the actual site of Banneker’s home, which burned on the day of his burial, was determined. A commemorative obelisk that the Maryland Bicentennial Commission and the State Commission on Afro American History and Culture erected in 1977 near his unmarked grave stands in the yard of the Mt. Gilboa African Methodist Episcopal Church in Oella, Maryland (see Mount Gilboa Chapel).
In 1980, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp in his honor.