Benjamin Banneker was a largely self-educated mathematician, astronomer, compiler of almanacs, farmer, engineer, surveyor, city planner, inventor, author, and social critic.
This is a man who didn’t let a lack of formal education stop him from achieving great things and helping society, as well as himself.
Who Was He?
Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, in Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland. His dad was an ex-slave named Robert, and his mom’s name was Mary. His grandmother, Molly (Mary’s mother), was a white Englishwoman. This, however, has not been confirmed, since his family history wasn’t compiled until someone interviewed his descendants in 1836 – long after his grandparents had died, and 30 years after he died.
Molly (his grandmother) was a former indentured servant. She married one of her slaves, named Bannaky. Her daughter Mary (Benjamin’s mother) did the same when she married Robert. Since by law, free/slave status depended on the mother, Benjamin, like his mother, was technically free.
His grandmother taught him how to read, and he did attend a small Quaker school for a short period of time. No one knows exactly how long he attended the Quaker’s school, but it is known that it was not for very long. As soon as he was old enough to work on the family’s farm, he no longer attended school and just worked on the farm.
Benjamin wanted to learn, however, and he taught himself many things throughout his life. It is presumed that he had access to books from Peter Heinrichs’ library. Peter Heinrichs is the Quaker who established the Quaker school he initially attended near Benjamin’s family farm in Baltimore County, MD.
In 1753, when Benjamin was 22, he was given a pocket watch as a gift by a business associate. He used this to design a clock out of wood that struck time on the hour. He applied his natural mechanical and mathematical abilities to diagrams of wheels and gears, and converted these into three-dimensional wooden clock-parts that he carved with a knife. People came from all over to see his clock. It is reported that the clock ran well and kept time for over 50 years. The clock was renowned as “the first clock built in the New World”.
In 1788, when he was 57 years old, a friend by the name of George Ellicott loaned Benjamin some astronomy books and astronomy equipment, as well as books on other subjects. A year later, Benjamin sent George some of his astronomical calculations. Among them were calculations that correctly calculated lunar and solar eclipses.
In 1789, at age 58, he was the first African-American appointed to the President’s Capital Commission. He was a self-taught surveyor, and in 1789, he was called on to assist George Ellicott and Pierre Charles L’Enfant in laying out what would become the nation’s capital.
Between 1792 and 1797, when he was 61-66 years old, he published almanacs every year. The almanacs included his astronomical calculations, as well as opinion pieces, literature, medical, and tidal information. His tidal information was particularly useful to the local fishermen. His almanac was even sent to Paris for inclusion at the Academy of Sciences.
Benjamin believed in equal rights for all people and used his writings and his words to campaign for people to treat others fairly and equally.
He sent a copy of his first Almanac to Thomas Jefferson, with a letter protesting that the man who declared that “all men are created equal” owned slaves. Jefferson responded with enthusiastic words, but did nothing as far as political reform was concerned.
There was a fire on the day of his funeral in 1806 which burned his log cabin to the ground and destroyed nearly all of his writings and calculations. Some of the surviving papers included his observations on bee hives and the behavior of honey bees, as well as his calculations on the 17-year cycle of cicadas.
Benjamin’s legacy still endures, even though he died 211 years ago. His broad knowledge in a wide variety of topics, as well as his efforts to abolish slavery and campaign for people to be treated equally has made him an inspiration for centuries.
On February 15, 1980, the United States made a 15-cent postage stamp showcasing Benjamin. 160 million of the stamps were printed.
In Baltimore, Maryland, there is a museum called the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum. It sits on 142 acres and details Benjamin’s life and accomplishments.
In Annapolis, Maryland, there is an African-American history museum that is named after him. It’s called the Banneker-Douglass Museum. It is Maryland’s official museum for African-American history and culture. The building it is housed in was built in 1875 as a church, but it has been remodeled and added to, and it was officially named after Banneker in 1984. Before then, it was known as the Mt. Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Many other facilities, buildings, streets, schools, and institutions throughout the United States are also named after him.
Some of Benjamin’s Quotes
The color of the skin is in no way connected with strength of the mind or intellectual powers.
Presumption should never make us neglect that which appears easy to us, nor despair make us lose courage at the sight of difficulties.
Never abandon your vision. Keep reaching to further your dreams.