BENJAMIN BANNEKER Biography - Famous Scientists


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Benjamin Banneker was an African-American astronomer, clockmaker, and publisher       
who was instrumental in surveying the District of Columbia.                           
He was born in Maryland on November 9, 1731. His maternal grandmother, Molly           
Walsh emigrated from England to Maryland as an indentured servant in bondage for       
7 years. At the end of that time, she bought her own farm near Baltimore along         
with 2 slaves. Later, she freed the slaves and married 1 of them. Formerly known       
as Banna Ka, Molly's husband had changed his name to Bannaky. Among their             
children, they had a daughter named Mary. When Mary Bannaky grew up, she also         
purchased a slave, Robert, whom, like her mother, she later freed and married.         
Robert and Mary Bannaky were the parents of Benjamin Banneker.                         
Banneker's grandmother, Molly used the Bible to teach Mary's children to read.         
He also learned the flute and the violin. Later, when a Quaker school opened           
nearby, Benjamin attended it during the winter where he learned to write and           
basic mathematics. His biographers disagree on the amount of formal education he       
received, some claiming an 8th grade education while others doubt he received         
that much. However, few dispute his intelligence. At the age of 15, he took over       
the operations for the family farm. His father, Robert Bannaky, was notable for       
having built a series of dams and watercourses that successfully irrigated the         
family farm. Benjamin enhanced the system to control the water from the springs       
(known around as Bannaky Springs) on the family farm. Their tobacco farm               
flourished even in times of drought.                                                   
At the age of 21, Banneker's life was changed when he saw a neighbor's pocket         
watch. (Some say the watch belonged to Josef Levi, a traveling salesman.) He           
borrowed the watch, took it apart to draw all its pieces, then reassembled it         
and returned it running to its owner. Banneker then carved large-scale wooden         
replicas of each piece, calculating the gear assemblies himself, and used the         
parts to make a striking clock, the first wooden clock in the United States. The       
clock continued to work, striking each hour, for more than 40 years.                   
Driven by this fascination, he turned from farming to watch and clock making.         
One customer was a neighbor named George Ellicott, a surveyor. He was so               
impressed with his Banneker's work and intelligence, he lent him books on             
mathematics and astronomy. With this help, Banneker taught himself astronomy and       
advanced mathematics. Starting about 1773, he turned his attention to both             
subjects. His study of astronomy enabled him to make the calculations to predict       
solar and lunar eclipses, even correctly contradicting experts of the day, and         
to compile an ephemeris for his Benjamin Banneker's Almanac, which he published       
from 1791 through 1796. He became known as the Sable Astronomer.                       
In 1791, Banneker sent then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, a copy of his       
first almanac along with an eloquent plea for justice for African Americans,           
calling on the colonists' personal experience as "slaves" of Britain and quoting       
Jefferson's own words. Jefferson was impressed and sent a copy of the almanac to       
the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris as evidence of the talent of blacks.           
Banneker's almanac helped convince many that African-Americans were not               
intellectually inferior to whites.                                                     
Also in 1791, Banneker was hired to assist brothers Andrew and Joseph Ellicott         
as part of a 6-man team to help design the new capital city, Washington, DC.           
This made him the 1st African-American presidential appointee. An apocryphal           
story says that he worked with Pierre L'Enfant and when L'Enfant threw a temper       
tantrum and quit, taking his drawings with him, Banneker was able to reproduce         
said drawings from memory. Many historians doubt the story and claim the two men       
never even met. True or not, it does not diminish Benjamin Banneker's                 
In addition to his other work, he also published a treatise on bees, did a             
mathematical study on the cycle of the seventeen-year locust, and wrote               
passionately about the anti-slavery movement. Despite his change of occupation         
from farmer to scientist, he also continued to keep his garden. Over the years,       
he played host many distinguished scientists and artists of his day. Although he       
had predicted his own death at age 70, Benjamin Banneker actually survived             
another 4 years. His last walk (accompanied by a friend) came on October 9, 1806.     
He felt ill and went home to rest on his couch. He died later that day. (One           
source places the date on October 25 and the location as being wrapped in a           
blanket observing the nigh sky as was his habit.)                                     
His memorial Gravestone Marker still exist at the Westchester Grade School in         
the Ellicott City/Oella region of Maryland, where Banneker spent his entire life       
except for the Federal survey. It was'nt until the 1990s that the actual site of       
Banneker's home, which burned on the day of his burial, was determined.