Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement: Benjamin Banneker


(Let Us Know Your Comment: In addition to being a brilliant scientist, did you know that Benjamin was also an outspoken critic against the evils of slavery in his day?)

Born in 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County, Maryland  -- the son of  free African slaves. Benjamin grew up on his father's farm with three sisters. After learning to read from his mother and grandmother, he read the Bible to his family in the evening. Briefly attending a nearby Quaker country school was the extent of his formal education. As he grew into adulthood, he inherited the family's successful farm where he grew tobacco. But he also had an intense curiosity in areas where he could use his imagination. At the age of 30,  Benjamin constructed a handsome wooden clock without having ever seen a clock before (although he had examined a pocket watch). He painstakingly carved the toothed wheels and gears of the clock out of seasoned wood. The clock operated successfully until the time of his death years later. The success of this personal project lit a fuse in him to expand his horizons to other areas of discovery.

Why He's Important: Largely self-taught through books and equipment loaned to him, Benjamin made his mark in colonial America as a brilliant astronomer, mathematician, and surveyor (one who maps out new lands and territory for development). His talents led to him to play a key role on a surveying team appointed by George Washington to map out and design the new capital city in Washington, DC, making Benjamin the first African-American presidential appointee. With this assignment completed, he returned home to begin work on ephemerides (calculations and tables that gave the locations of stars and planets for each day of the year) which were published for almanacs and were widely distributed and influential, furthering Benjamin's success.  In addition to his almanacs, he also published information on bees and calculated the cycle of the 17-year locust.

Other Achievements: While sending a letter and copy of his almanac calculations one day to Thomas Jefferson (then the U.S. Secretary of State), Benjamin made a bold move into another area that he would become known for: expressing  anti-slavery viewpoints. In his letter to Jefferson, he criticized the noted statesman, who was a slave owner himself, for his "absurd and false ideas" about slavery.  Benjamin urged Jefferson to push for the abolishment of slavery in America, comparing this issue to the enslavement of the American colonies by the British crown. Jefferson, impressed with Benjamin's boldness, acknowledged the letter and wrote him a response, which Benjamin published alongside his original piece of correspondence in his 1793 almanac. Benjamin's outspokenness on the issue of slavery earned him widespread support of the abolitionist societies in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Banneker died in 1806 in Baltimore, Maryland, where he is buried near his home.

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The portrait and illustration at the top of this item is highly misleading. There are no known portraits of Banneker. The illustration is similar (but not identical) to a woodcut portrait entitled "Bannakar" in one of Banneker's almanacs. At the time that Banneker authored this almanac, he was more than 60 years old. The illustration is that of a much younger person.

Further, the legend on the illustration states that Banneker "helped plan and map out the capital city of Washington, D.C." This is not correct. Banneker assisted in the initial survey of the boundaries of the future District of Columbia. He did not help plan or map out the City of Washington. The City of Washington was at the center of the District, far from the District's boundaries.

The blog states that Banneker was a presidential appointee. This is not correct. Andrew Ellicott, who led the boundary survey, hired Banneker as an assistant. President Washington did not participate in this appointment.

The blog also states that Banneker calculated the cycle of the 17-year locust (cicada). While this is correct, others had published papers describing on this cycle 30 years before Banneker did. The well-known Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus gave a Latin name to the insect that acknowledged the 17-year cycle many years before Banneker observed it.. Many people in the U.S. and Europe were therefore familiar with the cycle long before Banneker was. It appears that Banneker was unaware of this any of this when he made his observations, as he apparently believed that his observations were original.

For further information about what Banneker actually did and did not do, read: Bedini, Silvio A. (1999). The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society.

By Bernard Berne (not verified) on 18 Oct 2012 #permalink