Black History Month: Benjamin Banneker

During Black History Month, we are highlighting African-Americans who have made a significant contribution to American society.

Who was Benjamin Banneker?  He is credited with being the first African American man of science, born  on 9 November 1731 near Baltimore Maryland. Banneker was many things: an astronomer, farmer, mathematician and surveyor.

In 1791, Banneker was an assistant to Major Andrew Ellicot, the surveyor appointed by President George Washington to lay out the boundaries of the District of Columbia.  Banneker provided the astronomical calculations for surveying and laying out the city.
Much of his early life was spent in rural Maryland, he was taught to read by his English grandmother Molly Welsh. His formal education was limited to intermittent schooling during the winter in a one room school taught by a Quaker. As soon as he was old enough he left school to work full-time on the farm. While farming he continued to educate himself teaching himself mathematics and astronomy. In 1753 at the age of 22, he completed a clock built entirely of wood, each gear carved by hand.  His only models were a pocket watch and a picture of a clock.  The clock kept almost perfect time for over 50 years.

Continuing his self education and growing interest in Astronomy Banneker complied a series of almanacs containing his observations on the movements of heavenly bodies, the first was published in 1792 and continued until the last one was published in 1797. These almanacs also included commentaries, literature, and fillers that had a political and humanitarian purpose. Banneker sent a copy of the first almanac to Thomas Jefferson , the then Secretary of State, with it he sent a letter calling for the abolition of slavery. Jefferson was impressed and sent a copy of the almanac  to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris and he replied to Banneker’s letter.

You can find out more about this extraordinary man from: the Maryland Historical Society website Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, Maryland and you can find a biography on the Brookhaven National Laboratory.