(b. Baltimore County, Maryland, 9 November 1731; d. Baltimore County, 9 October 1806)
observational astronomy, ephemerides, almanacs.
A tobacco farmer, and amateur astronomer, Benjamin Banneker was an inspiration for his mathematical achievements. He is frequently described as the first African American man of science.
Early Life. Banneker was born free in Baltimore County, Maryland, on 9 November 1731. He was the son of a freed slave from Guinea named Robert and of Mary Banneky, daughter of a formerly indentured English servant named Molly Welsh and her husband, Bannka, a slave whom she freed and who claimed to be the son of a Gold Coast tribal chief.
Banneker’s early years were spent with his family, including three sisters, growing tobacco on his parents’ 100-acre farm near the banks of the Patapsco River. In his early years he had been trained to read and write by his grandmother by means of a Bible she had purchased from England, but his only formal schooling was attendance for a week or two in a nearby Quaker one-room schoolhouse. Benjamin became a voracious reader, borrowing books from wherever he could, and developed considerable skill in mathematics. He enjoyed devising mathematical puzzles and solving those brought to him by others. At about the age of twenty-one he constructed a striking wall clock, without ever having seen one. It is said that it was based on his recollections of the mechanism of a pocket watch. Apparently, he visualized it as a mathematical puzzle, relating the numerous toothed wheels and gears, carving each carefully from seasoned hardwood with a pocket knife. For a bell, he utilized either part of a glass bottle or metal container. The timepiece appears to have been the first clock in the region and brought those who had heard about it to his cabin to observe it and listen to it strike. The clock continued to function successfully for more than fifty years, until his death.
Inheriting the family farm at his father’s death, Banneker lived with his mother until her demise. Then living alone, he continued to grow and sell tobacco until about the age of fifty-nine, when rheumatism forced him to retire. His farm made him virtually self-sufficient, with a productive vegetable garden, thriving fruit orchards, and several hives of bees that he maintained. Banneker and his family had been among the first clients of the newly established Ellicott Store, in nearby Ellicott’s Lower Mills, and during his leisure he continued to visit it frequently, purchasing small items he required, perusing the wealth of imported merchandise, occasionally purchasing an inexpensive book for his own small library. Most of all he enjoyed the opportunity to read newspapers from other cities that the store sold and that provided him with a link to the outer world.
Now, with the freedom of retirement from work, Banneker turned with new vigor to his astronomical studies, often whiling away the hours until dawn scanning the night skies with his telescope and recording notations for an ephemeris for an almanac he was compiling for the following year.
Work in Observational Astronomy. It was just at this time that fate sought him out for an important role to play in the nation’s history. The surveyor Andrew Ellicott had recently been appointed by President George Washington to produce a survey of selected lands on which to establish a national capital. Ellicott urgently required an assistant with some knowledge of astronomy to work in the field observation tent during the night hours. He traveled to Ellicott’s Lower Mills hoping to hire his cousin George Ellicott, Banneker’s neighbor, who was an amateur astronomer. However, his cousin, being unable to leave his own work, instead recommended Banneker, whom he felt had become sufficiently informed on the subject to fulfill the position. Banneker was hired and, overwhelmed by the opportunity, he traveled together with Andrew Ellicott to the site that was to become the national capital, arriving early in the new year of 1791.
Banneker worked in the observatory tent for more than four months, from the beginning of February until the end of April 1791. It was grueling work, for he was forced to spend the long hours of the night lying on his back in order to use an instrument called a zenith sector. His assignment was to observe through the instrument’s telescope as stars transited over the zenith, noting the exact moment of each star’s transit and recording it for Ellicott’s use when he arrived the next morning.
It was extremely tiring work for a man of Banneker’s advanced years, but despite the discomfort, he derived considerable pleasure and pride from the knowledge that he was contributing to such an important project. Also, after taking a nap during the early daylight hours, Banneker had the privilege of using Ellicott’s astronomical textbooks, which were maintained in the observatory tent. This enabled him to complete the ephemeris he was compiling for an almanac for the following year, 1792. For his participation on the survey, including travel, Banneker was paid a total of $60.
Correspondence with Jefferson. Soon after returning home, Banneker sent a handwritten copy of his completed ephemeris to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson because, as he wrote, Jefferson was considered to be “measurably friendly and well disposed towards us,” referring to the African American race, “who have long laboured under the abuse and censure of the world. … And have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt, and … long have been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely able of mental endowments (1792).”
Submitting his calculations as evidence to the contrary, Banneker urged Jefferson to work toward bringing an end to slavery. Jefferson answered promptly:
No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given our black brethren, talents equal to those of other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owed merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa & in America. … No body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition of both their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected, will admit. (Payne, 1862, pp. 168–171)
Jefferson was so impressed with Banneker’s calculations that he sent a copy to the Marquis de Condorcet, secretary of the French Academy of Sciences in Paris, with an enthusiastic cover letter. No reply was forthcoming from Condorcet, however, because at just the time of the arrival of Jefferson’s letter, the French diplomat had been forced to go into hiding for opposing the monarchy and for having supported a republican form of government. During the following year, the two letters, the one from Banneker to Jefferson and the statesman’s reply, were published in the United States in a widely distributed pamphlet and in at least one periodical.
Publication of the Almanac. James McHenry, a senator from Maryland, had been so impressed with Banneker’s almanac manuscript that he wrote an endorsement for it that was published together with the almanac by the Baltimore printer Goddard & Angell. The almanac bore the title Benjamin Banneker’s Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris for the Year of Our Lord 1792. In addition to its sales in Baltimore, the almanac was made available also by printers in Alexandria, Virginia, and in Philadelphia. It proved an immediate success, and Banneker’s lifestyle soon changed somewhat, as he became acknowledged by neighbors and occasionally by others visiting the region.
During the next five years, Banneker continued to calculate ephemerides, which he sold and which were published in almanacs bearing his name in the title. Promoted by the abolitionist societies of both Pennsylvania and Maryland, Banneker’s almanacs were published by several printers and sold widely in the United States and also in England. Twenty-eight separate editions of his almanacs are known to have been published.
Generally, in the production of an almanac, the astronomer provided only the ephemeris, and the remaining content was selected and furnished by the printer, who often selected random prose and poetry taken from the published press or journals. Frequently included were useful tables of weights and measures, coinages, interest rates and scales of depreciation, measurements of roads, and distances of cities from the place of publication, a calendar of meetings of courts of law holding sessions where the almanacs would be sold, and so forth.
The remainder of the pages of these inexpensive and poorly printed pamphlets generally were filled with moral elevating scriptural quotations, proverbs, allegorical stories, and puritanical essays. By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, the almanac’s content changed distinctly in tone from its earlier religious bias to one of more practical considerations, with emphasis on education and literary and historical content. As a consequence, in time the almanac became more entertaining, with homely wisdom cast in contemporary language. By the end of the eighteenth century, the publication had become the most common printed item in the American republic, printed in every state, each vying with others in developing a new marketable item. In the period that Banneker was undertaking the preparation of an ephemeris, the century was drawing to a close and once more the almanac content was undergoing a change, with new emphasis on local causes and national events.
In a period when clocks and watches were luxuries and common timepieces consisted primarily of time glasses and sundials, information about the times of sunrise, noon, and sunset were of considerable importance to the prospective purchaser, as well as the phases of the moon, eclipses, and conjunction. Among the most desirable and useful features of Banneker’s almanacs proved to be a tide table for the Chesapeake Bay region, which made his almanacs particularly desirable for river pilots, fishermen, and others living near and making their living on the water. It listed times for high water or high tide at Cape Charles, Point Lookout, Annapolis, and Baltimore. Why Banneker’s competitors ignored this feature is hard to understand, because it was simple enough to calculate the high tide at Annapolis, for instance, which was two hours later than at Point Lookout, while at Baltimore and Head-of-the-Bay the high tide was five hours later than at Point Lookout. The tide table was simplified considerably in Banneker’s almanacs for the years 1795 and 1796, which provided data for determining tides in ports as distant north as Halifax and Boston. This feature was titled “Rule to find the Time of High Water in the following Places” and consisted simply of an additive for each of the places listed, to be combined with the day of the Moon’s age.
It was Banneker himself and not his printer who compiled the tide tables for his almanacs. It was a simple matter to acquire the data, and no mathematical
achievement was involved. The changing of the tides had been associated with the motion of the Moon for centuries. Once the time of the highest or spring tide was known at a particular point at the age of the full or new moon, it was a simple matter to derive a table for each day of the month at the same place. Banneker applied the standard daily retardation of forty-eight minutes, or four-fifths of an hour. This determination of the highest tide waters or spring tides on the days of the full or new moon was known as “the establishment of the port” and generally was marked on the charts for the port in question.
From data in his published almanacs, it is evident that Banneker made his observations from a point of latitude 39°30’ north and a longitude of 4 hours, 59 minutes west. In addition to recording in his manuscript astronomical journal the ephemerides for each of the years for which he calculated them, Banneker also included miscellaneous exercises in mathematics and astronomy.
In the pages of his manuscript astronomical journal as well as in his commonplace book, Banneker occasionally recorded miscellaneous items about unusual atmospheric phenomena he had observed. Typical of these random notes was an entry on the very first page of the journal, under the date of 23 December 1790. He noted, “About 3 o’clock A.M. I heard a Sound and felt the Shock like heavy thunder I went out but could not observe any Cloud above the Horizon. I therefore Conclude it must be a great Earth Quake in some part of the Globe.” Another item, recorded on 4 May 1792, described how “In a Squall from the N.W. I observed the Lower regions of the Clouds to move Swiftly before the wind, and the upper region Slowly against it.”
Even in his later years the weather continued to preoccupy him. On 2 February 1803, he noted,
in the morning part of the day, there arose a very dark Cloud, followed by Snow and haile a flash of lightning and loud thunder crack, and then the Storm abated untill after noon, when another cloud arose the Same point, viz, Northwest with a beautiful Shower of Snow but what beautyfyed the Snow was the brightness of the Sun, which was near Setting at the time.
A comparison of the contents of Banneker’s published ephemerides made with those calculated and published by his contemporaries Ellicott, William Waring, and Mary Katherine Goddard, has revealed that Banneker’s calculations consistently reflected an overall high degree of comparative accuracy. An error analysis of the astronomical data in Banneker’s almanacs revealed that his data compared very favorably with that published by his contemporaries. There was no significant difference between Banneker’s star data and that published by the two contemporary almanac makers. Although Banneker’s planetary data may have appeared to be somewhat less accurate than that of Ellicott or Goddard, it was still quite usable by the ordinary purchaser of the almanac. Considering that the length and complexity of the calculations involved in determining the rising and setting of certain stars and planets, and realizing that this was only a small segment of the mathematics required for one year’s almanac, one can have only the greatest respect for this self-taught man of science.
Although Banneker continued to calculate ephemerides every year through the year 1802, those after 1797 remained unpublished, but were carefully recorded in his manuscript journal and commonplace book, which survive as unique records of an eighteenth-century almanac maker.
Character. Banneker espoused no particular religion, but as an early biographer noted, “His life was one of constant worship in the great temples of nature and science.” (Allen, 1921) As places of worship in his vicinity grew in number, Banneker visited each of them, but gave preference to the meetings of the Society of Friends, where “he presented a most dignified aspect as he leaned in quiet contemplation on a long staff, which he always carried after passing his seventieth year. And he worshipped, leaning on the top of his staff.” (Allen, 1921)
A description of Banneker was provided by Martha Tyson, daughter of George Ellicott, who had seen him when she was a young woman. “The countenance of Banneker,” she wrote,
had a most benign and thoughtful expression. A fine head of white hair surmounted his unusually broad and ample forehead, whilst the lower part of his face was slender and sloping towards the chin. His figure was perfectly erect, showing no inclination to stoop as he advanced in years. His rainment was always scrupulously neat; that for summer wear, being of unbleached linen, was beautifully washed and ironed by his sisters. … In cold weather he dressed in light colored cloth, a fine drab broadcloth constituting his attire when he designed appearing in his best style.
No known portrait of Banneker exists. Lacking such, an image frequently used is a woodcut portrait bust of a young black man, imaginary and not based on life, wearing the typical Quaker garb of the period. Purported to be of Banneker, this image illustrated the cover of a 1797 edition of one of his almanacs. The most accurate representation known may be found on a modern mural painting by the late William H. Smith of the survey of the federal territory. It hangs in the Maryland House on the John F. Kennedy Highway in Aberdeen, Maryland. In 1980 the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Banneker based on imagined features.
On 9 October 1806, during a nap following his usual morning walk, Banneker quietly died in his sleep, just one month short of his seventy-fifth birthday. In accordance with instructions he had left, immediately following his death all the items that had been borrowed from his neighbor George Ellicott, including the worktable, instruments, and books, had been returned to him by Banneker’s nephew. Included also was Banneker’s astronomical journal.
Banneker was buried two days later, on Tuesday, 11 October, in the family burial ground within sight of his house, a few yards away. During the services, as his body was being lowered into his grave, the mourners were startled as they looked up to see his house, a wooden building, suddenly burst into flame. Before help could be summoned, the entire structure burned to the ground. All its contents were totally destroyed, including Banneker’s clothing and other personal possessions, a few bits of furniture, a sparse collection of books and printed copies of his almanacs, as well as the fabled well-worn striking clock. The only item known to have escaped destruction was his quarto Bible, which had been removed from his house after his death and before the funeral, probably by one of his sisters. The cause of the conflagration was never determined.
Banneker’s death did not pass totally unnoticed. An obituary announcement appeared in the Federal Gazette on 28 October 1806, almost three weeks after his death. It provided a description of Banneker’s way of life and concluded, “Mr. Banneker is a prominent instance to prove that a descendant of Africa is susceptible of as great mental improvement and deep knowledge into the mysteries of nature as that of any other nation.”
WORK BY BANNEKER
Copy of a Letter from Benjamin Banneker to the Secretary of State, with His Answer. Philadelphia: Printed and Sold by Daniel Lawrence, 1792.
Allen, Will W. Banneker, the Afro-American Astronomer. Washington, DC, 1921.
Bedini, Silvio A. Early American Scientific Instruments and Their Makers. Washington, DC: U.S. Museum of History and Technology, Smithsonian Institution, 1964. See pages 22–25.
———.The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science. 2nd ed., revised and expanded. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1999.
Conway, Moncure D. “Benjamin Banneker, the Negro Astronomer.” Atlantic Monthly (January 1863): 79–84.
Kurtz, Benjamin. “The Learned Negro.” Lutheran Observer16, no. 31 (25 August 1848): 134–345.
Latrobe, John H. B. “Memoir of Benjamin Banneker: Read before the Historical Society of Maryland.” Maryland Colonization Journal, n.s., 2, no. 23 (May 1845): 353–364.
LePhillips, Phillip. “The Negro, Benjamin Banneker; Astronomer and Mathematician, Plea for Universal Peace.” Records of the Columbia Historical Society 20 (1917): 114–120.
McHenry, James. “Account of Benjamin Banneker, a Free Negro.” Universal Asylum (November 1791).
Payne, Daniel Alexander. “A Literary Curiosity—Letter from Benjamin Banneker to Hon. Thos. Jefferson.” Repository of Religion and Learning and of Science and Art4, no. 7 (July 1862): 168–171.
Tyson, Martha E. A Brief Account of the Settlement of Ellicott’s Mills, with Fragments of History therewith Connected, Written at the Request of Evan T Ellicott, Baltimore, 1865. Baltimore, MD: Printed by J. Murphy, 1871.
———.Banneker, the Afro-American Astronomer from the Posthumous Papers of Martha E. Tyson. Edited by Her Daughter. Philadelphia: Friends’ Book Association, 1884.
Silvio A. Bedini
"Banneker, Benjamin." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/banneker-benjamin
"Banneker, Benjamin." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved February 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/banneker-benjamin
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Born: November 9, 1731
Baltimore County, Maryland
Died: October 9, 1806
Baltimore County, Maryland
African American scientist and inventor
From 1792 through 1797 Benjamin Banneker, an African American mathematician and amateur astronomer, calculated ephemerides (tables of the locations of stars and planets) for almanacs that were widely distributed and influential. Because of these works, Banneker became one of the most famous African Americans in early U.S. history.
On November 9, 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County, Maryland. He was the son of an African slave named Robert, who had bought his own freedom, and of Mary Banneky, who was the daughter of an Englishwoman and a free African slave. Benjamin grew up on his father's farm with three sisters. After learning to read from his mother and grandmother, Benjamin read the bible to his family in the evening. He attended a nearby Quaker country school for several seasons, but this was the extent of his formal education. He later taught himself literature, history, and mathematics, and he enjoyed reading.
As he grew into an adult, Banneker inherited the farm left to him by his grandparents. He expanded the already successful farm, where he grew tobacco. In 1761, at the age of thirty, Banneker constructed a striking wooden clock without having ever seen a clock before (although he had examined a pocket watch). He painstakingly carved the toothed wheels and gears of the clock out of seasoned wood. The clock operated successfully until the time of his death.
Interest in astronomy
At the age of fifty-eight Banneker became interested in astronomy (the study of the universe) through the influence of a neighbor, George Ellicott, who lent him several books on the subject as well as a telescope and drafting instruments (tools used in astronomy). Without further guidance or assistance, Banneker taught himself the science of astronomy. He made projections for solar (of the Sun) and lunar (of the Moon) eclipses and computed ephemerides for an almanac. In 1791 Banneker was unable to sell his observations, but these rejections did not stop his studies.
In February 1791 Major Andrew Ellicott (1754–1820), an American surveyor (one who maps out new lands for development), was appointed to survey the 10-mile square of the Federal Territory for a new national capital. Banneker worked in the field for several months as Ellicott's scientific assistant. After the base lines and boundaries had been established and Banneker had returned home, he prepared an ephemeris for the following year, which was published in Baltimore in Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris, for the Year of Our Lord, 1792; Being Bissextile, or Leap-Year, and the Sixteenth Year of American Independence. Banneker's calculations would give the positions of the planets and stars for each day of the year, and his almanacs were published every year from 1792 until 1797.
Communications with Thomas Jefferson
Banneker forwarded a copy of his calculations to Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), then secretary of state, with a letter criticizing Jefferson for his proslavery views and urging the abolishment (ending) of slavery of African American people. He compared such slavery to the enslavement of the American colonies by the British crown. Jefferson acknowledged Banneker's letter and forwarded it to the Marquis de Condorcet, the secretary of the Académie des Sciences in Paris. The exchange of letters between Banneker and Jefferson was published as a separate pamphlet, and was given wide publicity at the time the first almanac was published. The two letters were reprinted in Banneker's almanac for 1793, which also included "A Plan for an Office of Peace," which was the work of Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745–1813). The abolition societies of Maryland and Pennsylvania were very helpful in the publication of Banneker's almanacs, which were widely distributed as an example of an African American's work and to demonstrate the equal mental abilities of the races.
The last known issue of Banneker's almanacs appeared for the year 1797, because of lessening interest in the antislavery movement. Nevertheless, he prepared ephemerides for each year until 1804. He also published a treatise (a formal writing) on bees and computed the cycle of the seventeen-year locust.
Banneker never married. He died on October 9, 1806, and was buried in the family burial ground near his house. Among the memorabilia preserved from his life were his commonplace book and the manuscript journal in which he had entered astronomical calculations and personal notations. Writers who described his achievements as that of the first African American scientist have kept Banneker's memory alive. Recent studies have proven Banneker's status as an extremely capable mathematician and amateur astronomer.
For More Information
Bedini, Silvio A. The Life of Benjamin Banneker. New York: Scribner, 1971.
Ferris, Jerri. What Are You Figuring Now? A Story About Benjamin Banneker. New York: Scholastic, 1988.
Pinckney, Andrea Davis. Dear Benjamin Banneker. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994.
"Banneker, Benjamin." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/banneker-benjamin-0
"Banneker, Benjamin." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/banneker-benjamin-0
Modern Language Association
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Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), an African American mathematician and amateur astronomer, calculated ephemerides for almanacs for the years 1792 through 1797 that were widely distributed.
On Nov. 9, 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County, Md. He was the son of an African slave named Robert, who had bought his own freedom, and of Mary Banneky, who was the daughter of an Englishwoman and a free African slave. Benjamin lived on his father's farm and attended a nearby Quaker country school for several seasons. He received no further formal education but enjoyed reading and taught himself literature, history, and mathematics. He worked as a tobacco planter for most of his life.
In 1761, at the age of 30, Banneker constructed a striking wooden clock without having seen a clock before that time, although he had examined a pocket watch. The clock operated successfully until the time of his death.
At the age of 58 Banneker became interested in astronomy through the influence of a neighbor, George Ellicott, who lent him several books on astronomy as well as a telescope and drafting instruments. Without further guidance or assistance, Banneker taught himself the science of astronomy; he made projections for solar and lunar eclipses and computed ephemerides (tables of the locations of celestial bodies) for an almanac.
In February 1791 Maj. Andrew Ellicott was appointed to survey the 10-mile square of the Federal Territory for a new national capital, and Banneker worked in the field as his scientific assistant for several months. After the base lines and boundaries had been established and Banneker had returned home, he prepared an ephemeris for the following year, which was published in Baltimore in Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris, for the Year of Our Lord, 1792; Being Bissextile, or Leap-Year, and the Sixteenth Year of American Independence, which commenced July 4, 1776.
Banneker forwarded a manuscript copy of his calculations to Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state, with a letter rebuking Jefferson for his proslavery views and urging the abolishment of slavery of the African American, which he compared to the enslavement of the American colonies by the British crown. Jefferson acknowledged Banneker's letter and forwarded the manuscript to the Marquis de Condorcet, the secretary of the Académie des Sciences in Paris. The exchange of letters between Banneker and Jefferson was published as a separate pamphlet and given wide publicity at the time the first almanac was published. The two letters were reprinted in Banneker's almanac for 1793, which also included "A Plan for an Office of Peace," which was the work of Dr. Benjamin Rush. The abolition societies of Maryland and Pennsylvania were largely instrumental in the publication of Banneker's almanacs, which were widely distributed as an example of the work of an African American that demonstrated the equal mental abilities of the races.
The last known issue of Banneker's almanacs appeared for the year 1797, because of diminishing interest in the antislavery movement; nevertheless, he prepared ephemerides for each year until 1804. He also published a treatise on bees and computed the cycle of the 17-year locust.
Banneker never married. He died on Oct. 9, 1806, and was buried in the family burial ground near his house. Among the memorabilia preserved was his commonplace book and the manuscript journal in which he had entered astronomical calculations and personal notations.
Banneker's memory was kept alive by writers who described his achievements as the first African American scientist. Recent studies have verified Banneker's status as an extremely competent mathematician and amateur astronomer.
Two good biographical studies of Banneker are Martha E. Tyson, A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker (1854), and her Banneker: The Afric-American Astronomer, edited by Anne T. Kirk (1884). All the available source material has been brought together in Silvio A. Bedini, The Life of Benjamin Banneker (1972). Other treatments include a brief account in John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes (1947; 3d ed. 1967); Shirley Graham's fictionalized biography, Your Most Humble Servant (1949); Wilhemena S. Robinson's sketch in Historical Negro Biographies (1968); and a chapter in William J. Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (1968). Banneker's famous letter to Thomas Jefferson is in vol. 1 of Milton Meltzer, ed., In Their Own Words: A History of the American Negro, 1619-1865 (3 vols., 1964-1967). For general background see E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro in The United States (1949; rev. ed. 1963), and Winthrop D. Jordan's monumental White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968). □
"Benjamin Banneker." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/benjamin-banneker
"Benjamin Banneker." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved February 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/benjamin-banneker
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Banneker, Benjamin (1731-1806)
Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806)
African american astronomer and mathematician
Young Math Genius. The son of a free mulatto mother and an African father who had purchased his freedom, Benjamin Banneker gained fame as a mathematician and astronomer. He was born in 1731 and was mostly self-taught, as might be expected of an African American on an isolated Maryland tobacco farm during that time period, but it was clear that he had a genius for math. He became a local celebrity when, at the age of twenty-one, he borrowed a neighbor’s pocket watch and re-created each gear out of wood, making a full-size clock—which continued to keep time for fifty years.
Astronomy. When Banneker was forty, a well-to-do Quaker family moved into the area. Despite differences in their status, age, and color, he became friendly with eighteen-year-old George Ellicott, who lent him books and a telescope and encouraged his lively interest in astronomy. Based on his own computations, Banneker created an almanac which calculated tides, phases of the moon, and the location of stars for each day of the year. His first attempt to get it published in 1791 was a failure, but it did come to the attention of George’s cousin, Maj. Andrew Ellicott, himself an amateur astronomer. Major Ellicott spoke of Banneker to the president of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, who saw an opportunity to help Banneker and to further the cause of antislavery. If a free black had the genius to create an almanac, these reformers reasoned, it might finally prove that blacks were in no way inferior to whites.
Surveying. At about the same time, President George Washington appointed a commission to survey the land that was to become the District of Columbia, and he chose Major Ellicott to direct the project. Through the Ellicotts, Banneker was asked to join the team. He accepted and in February 1791, at the age of sixty, left his home area for the first time and traveled to Alexandria and Georgetown. Physically he was unable to stand the rigors of fieldwork, but he handled all the astronomical observations and calculations for the team. After three months of living in a tent and being eager to get back to his almanac, he returned home in April. He continued to work on his almanac and, through an antislavery society, came to the attention of the famous mathematician David Rittenhouse, who verified the accuracy of Ban-neker’s astronomical calculations. “Every Instance of Genius amongst the Negroes is worthy of attention,” Rittenhouse wrote, “because their oppressors seem to lay great stress on their supposed inferior mental abilities.”
Correspondence with Jefferson. In 1791 Banneker sent a long and remarkable letter to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson appealing for his help in eradicating slavery in the United States. He used Jefferson’s own words from the Declaration of Independence to demonstrate that the same rights that Revolutionary patriots fought for were still denied to blacks in the United States. Jefferson’s reply was brief and ambiguous, but he did express his hope that Banneker’s example would prove that the appearance of black inferiority was merely a result of their degraded condition under slavery—a point that Jefferson’s own biases never overcame. Later that year Banneker’s almanac for 1792 was printed; it sold out quickly and went into various printings until 1802. Although later editions did not sell well, the almanac brought in enough money for him to quit farming and devote himself to his research and writing.
Symbolic Life. When Banneker died in 1806, his obituary in the Baltimore newspaper noted his accomplishments and the symbolism of his life’s work: “Mr. Banneker is a prominent instance to prove that a descendant of Africa is susceptible of as great mental improvement and deep knowledge into the mysteries of nature as that of any nation.” Thus Benjamin Banneker became a symbol of the antislavery movement.
Kevin Conley, Benjamin Banneker (New York: Chelsea House, 1989).
"Banneker, Benjamin (1731-1806)." American Eras. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/banneker-benjamin-1731-1806
"Banneker, Benjamin (1731-1806)." American Eras. . Retrieved February 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/banneker-benjamin-1731-1806
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American Mathematician and Astronomer
Benjamin Banneker is best known for his work in mathematics and astronomy. According to W. Douglas Brown, Banneker was "the first American Negro to challenge the world by the independent power of his intellect."
A native of Baltimore County, Maryland, Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, and spent most of his life on his father's farm located in what is now Ellicott City, Maryland. Although his father had been a slave, his mother was born free to a white English woman who came to America as an indentured servant and married a native African.
Banneker's family had sufficient means to afford schooling. The school was only open in the winter, and the pupils included a few whites and two or three black children. There Benjamin learned to read and do arithmetic to "double fractions." When he became old enough to help on his father's farm, he continued to teach himself.
In his early life, Benjamin constructed a wooden clock that was a reliable timepiece for over 20 years. It was the first striking clock of its kind made completely in America. Benjamin quickly became known as the smartest mathematician for miles around. In 1791, Banneker was nominated by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and appointed by President George Washington to the commission to survey federal land for a national capital in Washington, D.C. He had an important role in the layout and design of the city, though his name does not appear on any contemporary documents.
Banneker devoted himself to the study of astronomy. In 1792, he produced his first almanac in which he recorded solar and lunar eclipses , tide tables, and positions of the Sun, Moon, and planets for each day of the year. The renowned work was given to Thomas Jefferson along with a letter from Banneker pleading for the rights of slaves held in the colonies. Jefferson sent the almanac to M. de Condorcet, secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, praising the work. Thereafter, Banneker published yearly almanacs until his health declined in 1804.
Benjamin Banneker died on October 9, 1806. *On the day of his funeral, fire consumed his house, which destroyed his laboratory.
*Benjamin Banneker's work and memory remains alive today through groups which bear his name.
Mulcrone, Thomas F. "Benjamin Banneker, Pioneer Negro Mathematician." Mathematics Teacher 54 (1961): 32–37.
Brown, Mitchell C. "Benjamin Banneker, Mathematician, Astronomer." The Faces of Science: African Americans in the Sciences. 2000. <http://www.princeton.edu/~mcbrown/display/banneker.html>.
"Banneker, Benjamin." Mathematics. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 20, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/banneker-benjamin
"Banneker, Benjamin." Mathematics. . Retrieved February 20, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/banneker-benjamin