The Work and Impact of Benjamin Banneker

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The Work and Impact of Benjamin Banneker


Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) demonstrated that African Americans were capable of scientific and technological achievements. During the time that Banneker lived, the fledgling United States was attempting to create order from late eighteenth-century chaos. Although the American Revolution had secured political independence, the former colonies, merged into a confederation of state governments, experienced strife between and within the states. Entrenched social patterns, particularly that of slavery, prevented many individuals from aspiring to attain personal goals and contribute to society's improvement. Many white Americans, to maintain power, perpetuated untruths about blacks, especially concerning their intelligence and ingenuity. Banneker proved the falsehood of cultural myths about African Americans held during the early republic. Although he did not directly contribute to scientific theory, Banneker advanced American science through his example.


Curious colonists pursued scientific investigations regarding natural phenomena in their nearby environments. Most early American scientific activities consisted of amateur observations about wildlife, plants, and weather. Individuals wrote essays for local newspapers and British scientific journals and published their own pamphlets, commenting on what they had seen. Many articles presented new theories about unexplained events.

Most early American scientists were white males. Native Americans relied on spiritual and magical explanations for natural occurrences. Slaves and indentured whites lacked the time, literacy, and freedom to pursue scientific inquiries such as those their masters were able to initiate. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment encouraged scientific activity among the privileged. Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) is probably the best known colonial scientist. His experiments with lightning attracted a great deal of public attention. Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac began publication in 1732, seven years after Boston physician Nathaniel Ames issued the first Astronomical Diary and Almanac. John Winthrop (1714-1779), a Harvard College mathematician, was the second most eminent colonial scientist, after Franklin. He experimented with electricity and magnetism in his laboratory and pioneered research in seismology. Colonial scientific endeavors resulted in the creation of the American Philosophical Society in 1745, and libraries and colleges collected scientific writings and equipment.

Many Americans resisted scientific developments, considering intellectual pursuits unnecessary and a waste of time. People doubted scientists' ability to discover new information that would influence daily life. Religious groups regarded scientific inquiry with suspicion and encouraged their congregations to be cautious of accepting such work. Individuals instead valued practical experience and believed in myths, such as how the moon's phases affected crops. Only by the mid-1800s did Americans begin to realize how scientific knowledge could be transformed into monetary profits. People became more familiar with science because fairs exhibited scientific displays and technological innovations; contemporary periodicals such as Scientific American printed explanatory illustrations; and museums featured scientific specimens. Industrialization created demand for scientific engineering as well.

Because landowners were often uninvolved with the daily functioning of their plantations, slaves, especially those who had been trained as artisans, creatively solved scientific and technological problems and were skilled in practical engineering. Slaves helped build railroads, bridges, and waterways. Prior to (or concurrent with) Banneker's work, a few African Americans had contributed to mainstream medicine, including Cesar, Lucas Santomee, Onesimus, and James Durham. They devised cures for diseases or poisoning, such as snake bites, or inoculations for smallpox. Early African-American inventors such as James Forten Sr., Banneker's contemporary, invested their profits in abolitionist causes. The first recorded black female inventors were Sarah E. Goode, Ellen F. Eglin, and Miriam E. Benjamin, all who developed devices after Banneker's death.


When Benjamin Banneker was born, his family consisted of freed slaves, who did not fulfill the criteria early Americans expected of scientists. Banneker ultimately acquired many scientific titles: inventor, mathematician, surveyor, and astronomer. His work inspired both black and white scientists. Born free near Baltimore, Maryland, Banneker's childhood was unlike most African Americans in the late eighteenth century. Although his father and grandfather had been enslaved, they were emancipated before his birth, and Banneker refused to comply with whites' racist dictates. Also, the Banneker family's prosperity assured that Banneker was be treated with a certain degree of respect by Mary-land's economy-savvy population. Isolated on his family farm, Banneker did not experience the overt racism that other blacks suffered.

Educated in an integrated community school during winters, Banneker also studied books loaned to him by neighboring Quakers, who encouraged him to develop his academic talents. These prosperous members of the community valued Banneker's abilities and work ethic. He yearned to improve his intellect and continued to seek self-education, specifically in science and mathematics. Banneker especially enjoyed solving mathematical puzzles and composed his own problems. He worked on his family's tobacco farm, where he applied scientific concepts to solving practical problems, such as diverting natural springs for irrigation during droughts.

Banneker especially was intrigued by mechanical objects. Few Americans at the time owned watches or clocks because they were scarce and expensive. Traditional accounts say that in 1753 Banneker borrowed a wealthy neighbor's pocketwatch. He disassembled the watch and drew each part. Banneker used his sketches to carve a wooden clock with a knife. He calculated ratios to make the clock larger than the watch. Banneker carefully determined how the gears should be fitted together and how many teeth were required on each gear to replicate the timing mechanism in the watch. The clock accurately counted time, striking each hour. Banneker's clock was the first striking time device made in the United States, and his cleverness attracted public attention.

Interested in nature, Banneker watched bees and locusts and estimated a 17-year life cycle for the latter. Learning to use a telescope at his neighbor George Ellicott's house in 1788, Banneker also diligently recorded his observations and measurements of celestial objects and their movements. His astronomical calculations resulted in the successful prediction of a 1789 eclipse. Such achievements resulted in more whites becoming aware of Banneker's work.

George Ellicott's cousin Major Andrew Ellicott admired Banneker's mathematical prowess and insisted that he assist him in surveying the 10-square-mile area procured from Maryland and Virginia that formed the site of the nation's new capital. In 1791 Banneker and Ellicott joined Pierre L'Enfant in assessing the land. Banneker monitored an astronomical clock and collected data about the times different stars crossed the meridian in order to establish latitudes. His use of sophisticated scientific instruments impressed area residents and the Georgetown Weekly Ledger praised him. When L'Enfant departed with crucial sketches after a conflict, Banneker reproduced the drawings from memory. Historians sometimes refer to Banneker as having saved Washington because, without his maps, the survey would have taken longer to recreate.

Banneker returned to his farm to resume his astronomical activities, consulting books and using scientific instruments loaned by his Quaker friends to document solar and lunar cycles. He slept during the day in order to work all night, a habit that resulted in his being falsely accused of laziness. Although he was not the first American astronomer (David Rittenhouse, 1732-1796, preceded him), Banneker was the first recognized African-American astronomer.

In 1792 Banneker distributed Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and VirginiaAlmanack and Ephemeris, which was updated annually through 1797. This work was the first scientific book published by an African American as well as the first almanac compiled by an African American. Senator James McHenry penned a biographical sketch of Banneker, stating that Banneker proved why slavery should be abolished. The 1795 almanac included an engraving of Banneker and the editors praised him, commenting "If Africa's sons to genius are unknown, / For Banneker has prov'd they may acquire a name / As bright, as lasting, as your own."

Readers did not seem concerned that the almanac's author was black. Recommended by abolitionist groups, the almanacs sold well throughout the United States, territories, and Europe and Banneker acquired international acclaim. His astronomical information, tide calculations, and weather predictions were especially useful for farmers and sailors. By reprinting antislavery material, he emphasized the injustices that African Americans encountered.

He became an outspoken abolitionist, denouncing slavery and striving to improve conditions for African Americans. Anti-slavery advocates presented Banneker's almanacs as examples of blacks' capabilities; when public support of abolitionism waned and the Maryland Society for the Abolition of Slavery closed, however, Banneker was unable to find a publisher for his work. He also was occasionally the target of local thieves and harassed by threatening gunfire.

Popularly known as the "Sable Astronomer" and referred to as a "wizard" because of his ingenuity, Banneker was often cited as an example showing that African Americans were intellectually competent. He used his fame to press for opportunities for African Americans. On August 19, 1791, Banneker boldly wrote Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who had stated that he believed blacks were mentally inferior to whites and incapable of scientific comprehension. Eloquently expressing his outrage at racism, Banneker asked Jefferson to use his political and social power to sway popular opinion regarding African Americans. Quoting the Declaration of Independence's assurances of liberty and humanity, he pleaded with Jefferson to recognize his hypocrisy and "embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us." Banneker expressed abhorrence of "that state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed." He included a draft copy of his almanac, "the production of my arduous study," which fulfilled his "unbounded desires to become acquainted with the secrets of nature." He told Jefferson that his work helped "gratify my curiosity" despite "the many difficulties and disadvantages, which I have had to encounter." Jefferson responded favorably in his reply: "No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men." To advance Banneker's career, he forwarded the almanac to the French Academy of Sciences, "because," he continued, "I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them."

When Banneker died, his clock was still functioning accurately, demonstrating the quality of work he had performed. Although some of his peers recognized his intellectual merits, Banneker was mostly overlooked or discredited. The reaction to his achievements reveals the rigid cultural patterns and racial attitudes of the Federalist and Jeffersonian eras. Although the Banneker Institute was opened in 1853, Banneker did not receive the recognition he deserved until the twentieth century. During the Civil Rights Movement, landmarks related to Banneker were located and identified in Maryland, and history books, especially those focusing on African-American pioneers, began including his noteworthy achievements. The United States Postal Service designed a stamp featuring Banneker, the first American astronomer so honored. The Maryland Historical Society sponsors the Banneker-Douglass Museum and educational facilities are named in his honor. Organizations have appropriated his name, including the Benjamin Banneker Association, Inc., a nonprofit organization that promotes mathematics education for African-American children and scientific opportunities for blacks.

Almost a century after Banneker's scientific achievements, Edward A. Bouchet was the first African American to earn a science doctorate and, another century later, David H. Blackwell became the first African-American member of the National Academy of Sciences. "The most sensible of those who make scientific researches, is he who believes himself the farthest from the goal, &...studies as if he knew nothing and marches as if he were only yet beginning to make his first advance," wrote Banneker in 1795, foreshadowing his scientific legacy.


Further Reading

Bedini, Silvio A. The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1999.

Haber, Louis. Black Pioneers of Science and Invention. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991.

James, Portia P. The Real McCoy: African American Invention and Innovation, 1619-1930. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1989.

Jordan, Winthrop D. The White Man's Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Kaplan, Sidney, and Emma Nogrady Kaplan. The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

Russell, Dick. Black Genius and the American Experience. Foreword by Alvin F. Poussaint. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1998.

Stearns, Raymond Phineas. Science in the British Colonies of America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.

Webster, Raymond B. African American Firsts in Science and Technology. Foreword by Wesley L. Harris. Detroit, MI: Gale Group, 1999.

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The Work and Impact of Benjamin Banneker

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