Have you heard of Benjamin Banneker? Do you know the story of this successful almanac maker and self-taught math and astronomy student? Did you know that he is the famous inventor who created the first fully working clock in America?
Who is Benjamin Banneker?
Benjamin Banneker was born in Banneky Farm, Maryland, on November 9, 1731. A time when the fledgling United States was seeking to bring order out of the late-18th-century chaos. Although the American Revolution established political independence, the former colonies, combined into a confederation of state governments, endured conflict between and among the states. Many people were discouraged from pursuing personal ambitions and contributing to the betterment of society because of entrenched societal norms, and for many African-Americans, that meant enslavement. Banneker, who was born to formerly enslaved parents, was mostly self-taught with no formal education. Despite the challenges he encountered, he was able to show the world his scientific and technological advancements.1,2
Molly, Benjamin Banneker’s grandmother, took a keen interest in his education. She passed along his grandfather’s African farming methods and taught him how to read. Banneker developed into a knowledgeable and articulate young boy. 3,4
Banneker enrolled at the valley’s Quaker school during the winter months, where he learned writing and basic arithmetic skills. Benjamin Banneker attended Quaker School for a while but had to discontinue his official education when he was old enough to assist on his parent’s farm. When he took over the farm at age 15, he created an irrigation system to manage the water flow from local springs to the crops. The farm prospered due to Banneker’s inventiveness, even amid droughts. From this point on and for the rest of his life, Banneker was primarily self-taught.5,6
Benjamin Banneker’s Most Significant Contributions
Due to his extraordinary achievements, Benjamin Banneker is one of the individuals who hold a unique position in American history. 3,4,6 7,8,9
- He Created the First Domestic Clock in America
Banneker developed a fascination for Josef Levi’s patent watch. Since clocks weren’t prevalent at the time in the United States, Josef Levi offered Banneker the pocket watch as a result of his interest. Then, Banneker dissected it to learn more about its parts and operation. In 1752, he finished building a working clock entirely out of carved wooden components. The clock was incredibly accurate and would continue to run for many years. The wooden clock ticked for decades due to its accuracy. Benjamin Banneker’s popularity and notoriety were considerably boosted by this clock’s creation.
- He Created One of America’s Earliest Almanacs
Historically, many people in the early days relied on mystical and magical explanations for natural occurrences because they lacked the freedom, time, and literacy needed to explore subjects like science and the natural world. However, the enlightenment of the 18th century promoted scientific endeavors among the affluent. Despite having little formal education and scientific training, Banneker clearly possessed a flair for math and machinery.
Banneker immersed himself in math and astronomy by borrowing books from a friend. Banneker used his newfound knowledge by calculating the tides, the times of sunrise and sunset throughout the year, the phases of the moon, the incidence of eclipses, forecasts for harsh winters and seasonal shifts, and reappearance of pests. He included his calculations in an almanac along with advice on how to produce crops, suggestions for treatments, and literary quotations that he found uplifting. Early in the 1790s, Banneker assembled, published, and even sent a copy of his Almanac and Ephemeris to the then secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, along with a message advocating the abolition of slavery.
- He Assisted in the Planning of Washington, D.C.
After being pleased by his skills and the letter, Jefferson nominated Banneker to be a part of a surveying crew to lay out Washington, D.C. George Washington appointed Banneker to the three-person team. Banneker saved the project when the lead architect abruptly departed, taking all the designs with him. Banneker is claimed to have been able to reproduce the plans using his meticulous memory. “Banneker surprised them when he asserted that he could reproduce the plans from memory and in two days did exactly as he had promised,” wrote author Gaius Chamberlain.,9
Benjamin Banneker lived during a critical period in the history of science and rational thought. He would have been even more famous had it not been for the racial prejudices, discrimination, and inequality. His talent was exceptional, and his writings reached astronomical conclusions well ahead of his time. In terms of talent, he was unquestionably one of the best scientific brains of the 18th century, leaving several legacies behind and is widely acknowledged as the first African American scientist. He is an example to the numerous African Americans who have followed in his footsteps, working at the forefront of natural sciences and making substantial contributions to American history and the ever-expanding pool of human knowledge.
- Benjamin Banneker | Letter to Jefferson, Clock, Almanac, & Facts | Britannica. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benjamin-Banneker
- The Work and Impact of Benjamin Banneker | Encyclopedia.com. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/work-and-impact-benjamin-banneker
- Benjamin Banneker (1731 – 1806) – Biography – MacTutor History of Mathematics. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Banneker/
- Africans in America/Part 2/Benjamin Banneker. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part2/2p84.html
- The Life of Benjamin Banneker By Silvio A. Bedini. Illustrated. 434 pp. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. $14.95. – The New York Times. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/1972/02/27/archives/the-life-of-benjamin-banneker-by-silvio-a-bedini-illustrated-434-pp.html
- BENJAMIN BANNEKER 1731-1806 – Mathematicians of the African Diaspora. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from http://www.math.buffalo.edu/mad/special/banneker-benjamin.html
- Benjamin Banneker Biography – life, family, story, death, history, school, mother, son, book, information, born, house. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.notablebiographies.com/Ba-Be/Banneker-Benjamin.html
- Three Things to Know About Benjamin Banneker’s Pioneering Career | Smart News| Smithsonian Magazine. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/three-things-know-about-astronomer-benjamin-bannekers-pioneering-career-180967136/
- Benjamin Banneker’s Capital Contributions | Boundary Stones: WETA’s Washington DC History Blog. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://boundarystones.weta.org/2016/02/08/benjamin-bannekers-capital-contributions#footnote-4