The Maryland-born polymath wrote almanacs and assisted in surveying the District of Columbia.
Benjamin Banneker was a Renaissance man in the fields of math, astronomy, and the sciences. An accomplished mathematician and inventor, Banneker was embraced by the leading men of his era, including Thomas Jefferson. And like many noted figures in colonial America, Banneker was born in the Province of Maryland before becoming a state in 1776. Did you know he was born in Maryland? Read on for more about the polymath below!
Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County on November 9, 1731. He was the child of freed slaves Robert and Mary Bannaky and grew up on a farm in the county. It's believed he obtained a brief education from the Quaker teacher Peter Heinrichs before working on the family's farm. Despite not receiving a formal education, Banneker was able to teach himself; at 21, he built his own working clock and could calculate astronomical phenomenons like solar eclipses.
In the late 1700s, the Ellicott brothers—Andrew, Joseph, and John—arrived from Pennsylvania to begin development for Ellicott's Gristmills on land near Banneker's farm. Banneker became acquainted with the family, with Andrew's son George lending him astronomy books to study. Impressed by his intellectual capacity, and it was Major Andrew Ellicott who sought him for a survey project which would form the District of Columbia. His job included making astronomical projections in Jones Point in Alexandria, Virginia. He was involved from February to April 1792, before his health forced him to retire.
Courtesy of Biography.com
Banneker was also the author of several almanacs. With the help of abolitionist James Pemberton, Banneker's astronomical calculations were approved by figures in the science like David Rittenhouse and William Waring. These almanacs were dated throughout the 1790s and chronicled significant information—from tide patterns along the Chesapeake Bay to the 1793 yellow fever epidemic that plagued Philadelphia. His first volume produced 28 editions that circulated across five states.
Along with his academic pursuits, Banneker also rallied for racial equality. In 1791, he wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson regarding his views on slavery and criticized the statesman on the hypocrisy of drafting the Declaration of Independence while owning slaves. He expressed frustration towards the way his work was discussed in relation to his ethnicity. After comments from Rittenhouse, he said, "I am annoyed to find that the subject of my race is so much stressed. The work is either correct or it is not. In this case, I believe it to be perfect."
Banneker passed away at the age of 74 on October 19, 1806, in Oella, Maryland. On the day he was buried, a fire broke out in his home, where many of his personal possessions were destroyed. In life, he possessed a vast collection of diaries containing calculations and other valuable testaments to his life's work. Unfortunately all but one were destroyed. The cause of the fire remains a mystery to this day.
Were you familiar with Benjamin Banneker's achievements? Did you learn anything new? Let us know in the comments.