Benjamin Banneker was one of the USA’s most illustrious but little known personalities. He was a genius who rose from very difficult circumstances, and with bare minimum formal education managed to educate and transform himself into an inventor, astronomer, writer, advocate of human rights and determined opposer of slavery.
Benjamin Banneker

His contributions to farmers in the form of successful predictions of tides and eclipses, and compiled information of medical treatments, to African Americans in general by publicizing anti slavery ideas and inspiring his own neighborhood by building perhaps the first ever clock in the US are all equally valuable. He believed that all human beings have been equally endowed with faculties which can be used for the betterment of mankind and proved this by his own example.

Background – Birth and Family

He was born in 1731 in Maryland, USA in a place now known as Ellicott City to African American parents – Mary and Rodger Banneker.

This was at a time when slavery was still practiced in the USA. However, Benjamin was born free as per the rule in those times as both his parents were free. His mother Mary was born free, however his father had been a slave who had bought his freedom before his marriage. His father had taken on his mother’s surname.

His grandmother – Mary’s mother was Molly Welsh who was an English woman. She had married a slave who worked in her farm called Banna Ka. Molly Welsh had been deported to the USA as punishment for a petty crime. Subsequently she became a servant and worked her way to become a farm owner. After she married Banna ka, he changed his name to Bannaky and later to Banneker. Banneker had been bought to the British Colony from Africa by a slave trader. It is said that his father was a tribal leader in Africa and had knowledge of agriculture. This knowledge, passed on to Banneker helped him to contribute to Molly’s farm in a good way. This valuable association led to their marriage.

Molly contributed to her grandson Benjamin’s education in a big way. She taught him to read and write and taught him the Bible. Also, she passed on to him knowledge of agriculture a lot of which she had gained from her husband.

Education

Apart from initial lessons from his grandmother, he also spent a few years at elementary school run by the Quakers. At that time, Quakers were leaders in the anti-slavery movement and helped in the upliftment of the slaves. Benjamin spent some time getting formal education from them. The ideas from that school must have impressed on young Benjamin’s mind as like Quakers, he too was to evolve into an advocate of equality of races. As the Quakers, Benjamin too believed that all men were equal before the creator and all races had been equally endowed.

Benjamin excelled at academics. His favorite subject was mathematics. In no time, he had progressed so much that he ceased to find any challenge in problems set by his teacher. Hence he started on his hobby of creating his own problems and puzzles and would spend time to solve them. This interest continued till his death and during his lifetime he compiled many mathematical puzzles.

However this formal education in school was to end as soon as he was ready to help on his parents’ farm. Since then, he spent the rest of his childhood doing hard labor at the farm. However his quest for knowledge did not end and he continued to teach himself about the world from whichever source he could possibly come in contact with.

As a young teenager, Banneker had a friend in Peter Heinrichs, a Quaker farmer who shared his personal library with Banneker. He used this extensively to educate himself. He borrowed advanced books on mathematics and physics to extend his knowledge.

At the same time, his work at the farm allowed him to appreciate all the forces of nature at work in agriculture – soil, irrigation etc. He eagerly absorbed all knowledge about farming from his grandmother – including African folk wisdom. He wanted to be able to predict rains, eclipses more accurately to have better yields. He focused his attention on astronomy in order to do all this. Then, he also harbored intentions of publishing his knowledge so as to benefit other farmers.

He was determined to learn all aspects of science which would make life better and lessen hardship. One day, he happened to meet a person called Josef Levi who owned a watch. This was the first time that young Benjamin was seeing one. He was so fascinated by it that he kept bombarding Josef with questions about it. Josef, on seeing the keen interest Benjamin had in it, tried his best to assuage his curiosity. As a parting gift, Josef then gave him the watch. This delighted Benjamin who then dedicated himself to understand completely the working of the watch – by repeatedly dismantling it and re-assembling it. The determined Benjamin decided to create a clock which would be useful to more people than a watch – and he spent all the free time he could muster in the next couple of months on this task. He decided to build the clock in wood and he hand crafted it. He built all the tiny parts precisely with his hand. This single mindedness paid off and after around two years the working clock was complete. This caused a sensation in the neighborhood.

Youth

In 1772 a new family moved into the area in which Banneker’s farm was situated. This was the Ellicot family, and George Ellicot became friendly with Banneker over the years as they shared interests in science.

When a family friend died and left him a book on astronomy, a telescope and other scientific inventions, Banneker became fascinated with those. He soon taught himself astronomy which was to help him to predict events such as solar eclipses in future.

Inventions and Accomplishments

Clock

Benjamin Banneker’s family was introducted to a man named Joself Levi, sometime in the 1750s. This man had a watch with him. Benjamin was so fascinated with it that he borrowed it from Mr Levi, and started exploring it. Once he figured out how it worked, he wanted to build something like that, but bigger. Realizing he lacked sufficient knowledge, Benjamin turned to where he found solutions for many of his problems – books. He borrowed some books on geometry to learn about shapes; and borrowed Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia to better understand the laws of motion. Armed with these, he set about building a clock made out of hand-carved wood. It took him around two years, but he finally finished building America’s first clock in 1753, at the age of 22. It was made entirely out of wood. It is said that for around 3 decades, the clock kept perfect time!

Solar Eclipse Forecast

Around twenty years later, Banneker’s expertise in astronomy enabled him to successfully forecast a 1789 solar eclipse much ahead of the actual event. This caught attention as it contradicted predictions of well known astronomers of that time.

Survey

He was nominated to be part of the 1791 survey team of the Federal Territory (now Washington, D.C.), due to his skills in mathematics. This survey was to plan the layout for the city of Washington D.C. – it’s streets, buildings, monuments – many of which are part of the city’s landscape to this day. When a chief architect left abruptly, and they lost track of many plans already made – Banneker was able to reproduce all of them from memory – to the astonishment of others in the team. He achieved national acclaim for his scientific work in this. This also got him noticed by Thomas Jefferson who applauded his work and they corresponded for a long time after that.

Agriculture

In 1776, during the Revolutionary War, when food was short – Banneker’s knowledge in agriculture helped him to grow wheat in barren lands which helped feed American soldiers at war.

Farmer’s Almanac

Between 1792 and 1797, he developed six annual Farmers’ Almanacs and Ephemeris for Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. This was to predict weather, tides, eclipses and seasonal changes and tips on planting crops and home medical remedies. All the information listed in these were manually calculated and compiled by him.

The title page of Banneker’s 1792 Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris stated that the publication contained: the Motions of the Sun and Moon, the True Places and Aspects of the Planets, the Rising and Setting of the Sun, Place and Age of the Moon, the Lunations, Conjunctions, Eclipses, Judgment of the Weather, Festivals, and other remarkable Days; Days for holding the Supreme and Circuit Courts of the United States, as also the useful Courts in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia.

Contributions to the anti slavery movement

Banneker sent a copy of his almanacs to Thomas Jefferson, at that time the Secretary of State and in a twelve page later expressed to Jefferson that Blacks in the United States possessed equal intellectual capacity and mental capabilities as those Whites who were described in the Declaration of Independence. As such, he stated, Blacks should also be afforded the same rights and opportunities afforded to whites. This began a long correspondence between the two men that would extend over several years.
Benjamin Banneker's Letter to Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson promised Banneker in his reply to the 19 August 1791 letter that he would send his Almanac to Condorcet at the Académie des Sciences in Paris. A copy of Jefferson’s letter to Condorcet is in the Library of Congress.

Letter to Thomas Jefferson: On August 19 1791, Banneker sent a copy of his first almanac to secretary of state Thomas Jefferson. In an enclosed letter, he questioned the slaveholder’s sincerity as a “friend to liberty.” He urged Jefferson to help get rid of “absurd and false ideas” that one race is superior to another. He wished Jefferson’s sentiments to be the same as his, that “one Universal Father . . . afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties.” Jefferson responded with praise for Banneker’s accomplishments.

Death

Benjamin Banneker died quietly on October 25, 1806, lying in a field looking at the stars through his telescope. Nations around the world mourned his passing, viewing him as a genius and the United States’ first great Black Inventor. His memorial Gravestone Marker exists at the Westchester Grade School in the Ellicott City/Oella region of Maryland. In 1980, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp in his honor.
Benjamin Banneker Stamp

Banneker had sold his farm to the Ellicot family and lived in the farm house for the rest of his days. He spent his last days alone in the farmhouse studying and continuing to carry out scientific experiments. On the day of Banneker’s funeral the farm house burnt to the ground and his laboratory and the clock he made in his younger days was all destroyed. Only one manuscript journal which Banneker had written was not in the house and so survived. Every other record of his achievements, except the published Almanacs, were lost in this fire.

The surviving manuscript journal contains mathematical puzzles and their solutions. To give just one example:

Divide 60 into four such parts that the first being increased by 4, the second decreased by 4, the third multiplied by 4, the fourth part divided by 4, that the sum, the difference, the product and the quotient shall be one and the same number.

Do you know the answer?