On November 9, 1731, American almanac author, surveyor, naturalist and farmer Benjamin Banneker was born. Born in Baltimore County, Maryland, to a free African American woman and a former slave, Banneker had little formal education and was largely self-taught. Banneker’s knowledge of astronomy helped him author a commercially successful series of almanacs. He corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, drafter of the United States Declaration of Independence, on the topics of slavery and racial equality. Abolitionists and advocates of racial equality promoted and praised his works.
Benjamin Banneker was first educated at the Quaker School. However, his formal education came to an end when he began working at his parent’s farm. At the age of 22, Banneker created a wooden clock which he modeled from a borrowed pocket watch. The clock not only worked for the rest of Banneker’s life but also increased Benjamin Banneker’s reputation in the community.
In 1759, Banneker’s father died and he continued to live with his mother and sisters. In 1772, the Ellicott family moved into the area and Banneker became friends with George Ellicott due to their shared interest in science. Ellicott loaned Banneker books and equipment to begin a more formal study of astronomy around 1788. During the end of the 1780s, Banneker sent George his work calculating a solar eclipse. In the 1790s, the surveyor Major Andrew Ellicott (cousin of George Ellicott) hired Benjamin Banneker to assist in a survey project to place boundary stones at or near every mile point along the borders of the (new) capital territory. Banneker’s contributions included astronomical observations as well as maintaining a clock to relate points on the ground to the positions of stars at specific times.
After Benjamin Banneker left the survey (early), he performed astronomical calculations at Ellicott’s Mills that predicted solar and lunar eclipses included in his ephemeris. He further published his Almanac and Ephemeris and its subsequent revisions in a number of editions in a six-year series of almanacs which were printed and sold in six cities in four states for the years 1792 through 1797.
Concerning racial equality and slavery, Benjamin Banneker expressed his views in a letter to Thomas Jefferson and also in documents placed within his 1793 almanac. The almanac further contained copies of his correspondence with Jefferson, poetry by the African American poet Phillis Wheatley and by the English anti-slavery poet William Cowper, and anti-slavery speeches and essays from England and America. Even though Thomas Jefferson was opposed to slavery, he also believed that due to the “racial and intellectual differences, black and white people could not live together peacefully”.
At yovisto, you can learn more about Slavery, Ships and Sickness in a video lecture by Stuart Anderson at Gresham College.
References and Further Reading:
- Benjamin Banneker Biography at MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive
- Benjamin Benneker at the University of Buffalo
- Benjamin Banneker Almanac and Ephemeris at the University of Buffalo