Benjamin Banneker Biography (1731-1806)

mathematician and inventor

Benjamin Banneker is credited with being America's first black scientist. A native of Ellicott's Lower Mills, Maryland, he was born the first of three children November 9, 1731, to Robert, a slave from Guinea, West Africa, and hisfree wife Mary Banneky, of English-African descent. Benjamin's grandfather, Banneka, was an African prince; his grandmother, Molly Welsh Banneker, was anindentured servant who read and discussed the Bible with him. His father purchased his own freedom. The family lived ten miles from Baltimore on a 120-acre farm which Benjamin inherited following his father's death in 1757.

Despite having to work hard to support his family, Banneker received eight years of schooling from a Quaker teacher at an integrated private academy. He read borrowed books by Addison, Pope, Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden, studiedthe stars, and created and solved math puzzles as entertainment and a meansof self-education. He owned no books until the age of thirty-two.

Banneker was a mechanical genius. Famous as a mathematician and inventor, in1753 he completed the hand-carving of America's first clock, a faithful wooden mechanism studded with iron and brass that took two years to make. The clock kept time and struck the hour for over twenty years. The astounding part ofthis achievement is the fact that he had seen only one timepiece, a watch, and memorized its workings so that he could create his own model.

To improve his grasp of agriculture and obtain a better yield from tobacco, Banneker used his expertise in math and astronomy to study the heavens. He predicted the solar eclipse of 1789. Three years later he launched the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris, an almanac which contained data concerning tides, eclipses, formulas, history, literature, astrology, and medicines. With the support of abolitionist societies inMaryland and Pennsylvania, the popular volume ran for six editions and remained in publication for ten years. Banneker sent a copy to Thomas Jefferson asa means of proving that black people, if given better living conditions and aproper education, were capable of intellectual accomplishments. Jefferson, who championed Banneker's efforts, passed the almanac along to the French Academy of Sciences.

As a result of Banneker's correspondence with Jefferson, in 1791 President George Washington appointed Banneker as assistant to Major Andrew Ellicott as apart of the six-man team who surveyed the Territory of Columbia and plannedWashington, D. C. Here he achieved his most notable work. After the abrupt resignation and departure of Pierre-Charles L'Enfant, the initiator of the project, Banneker drew on his memory for the meticulous details which made the plan a success.

Banneker remained a bachelor and depended on his two sisters, Minta and Molly, to keep house for him. Famed as a recluse, he kept late hours in his laboratory and slept by day. He also involved himself in antiwar and antislavery movements by writing pamphlets and essays, the most significant being "A Plan of Peace-Office for the United States." His hobbies included grafting fruit trees in his orchard and teaching himself to play the violin. Suffering ill health, he leased his land to tenant farmers and later sold off parcels, maintaining only enough money to finance his scientific experiments. He died in poverty at his farm on October 9, 1806. As his body was being interred, his housecaught fire. His books and possessions, including his prized wooden clock, were consumed by flames.

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