Biography By Mary Bellis, About.com Guide
Benjamin Banneker was a self-educated scientist, astronomer, inventor, writer, and antislavery publicist. He built a striking clock entirely from wood, published a Farmers’ Almanac, and actively campaigned against slavery. He was one of the first African Americans to gain distinction in science.
On November 9 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born in Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland. He was the descendent of slaves, however, Banneker was born a freeman. At that time the law dictated that if your mother was a slave then you were a slave, and if she was a freewomen then you were a free person.
Banneker’s grandmother, Molly Walsh was a bi-racial English immigrant and indentured servant who married an African slave named Banna Ka, who had been brought to the Colonies by a slave trader.
Molly had served seven years as an indentured servant before she acquired and worked on her own small farm. Molly Walsh purchased her future husband Banna Ka and another African to work on her farm.
The name Banna Ka was later changed to Bannaky and then changed to Banneker. Benjamin’s mother Mary Banneker was born free. Benjamin’s father Rodger was a former slave who had bought his own freedom before marrying Mary.
Education and Skills
Benjamin Banneker was educated by Quakers, however, most of his education was self-taught.
He quickly revealed to the world his inventive nature and first achieved national acclaim for his scientific work in the 1791 survey of the Federal Territory (now Washington, D.C.). In 1753, he built one of the first watches made in America, a wooden pocket watch.
Twenty years later, Banneker began making astronomical calculations that enabled him to successfully forecast a 1789 solar eclipse. His estimate made well in advance of the celestial event, contradicted predictions of better-known mathematicians and astronomers.
Banneker’s mechanical and mathematical abilities impressed many, including Thomas Jefferson who encountered Banneker after George Elliot had recommended him for the surveying team1 that laid out Washington D.C.
Banneker is best known for his six annual Farmers’ Almanacs2 published between 1792 and 1797. In his free time, Banneker began compiling the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris3. The almanacs included information on medicines and medical treatment, and listed tides, astronomical information, and eclipses, all calculated by Banneker himself.
Letter to Thomas Jefferson
On August 19 1791, Banneker sent a copy of his first almanac to secretary of state Thomas Jefferson4. In an enclosed letter5, 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.
Benjamin Banneker died on October 25, 1806.