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Benjamin Banneker is commonly regarded as the first modern1 black scientist. His work was held in high esteem even in his day, and he was honoured with the affectionate nickname 'the Sable Astronomer'.
Through his efforts, he helped to smooth the way for the development of future minds, whatever the origin or race of their possessors. He not only had a great mind, but also the even greater courage to use it openly and even criticise the way of thinking of his peers. Banneker's life and work in the tumultuous formation of the United States of America helped to shape the young nation, both physically through his work on the new capital city and ideologically through his quest for recognition. He provided living proof that all men are indeed created equal, and was not afraid to proclaim this fact loudly - his active influence on the scientists and statesmen of the time would ultimately contribute to the abolition of slavery.
Despite the popular prejudices of his times, the man was quite unwilling to let his race or his age hinder in any way his thirst for intellectual development.
– The Benjamin Banneker Foundation
The Life And Times of Benjamin Banneker
Mary Walsh was a white Englishwoman who was sentenced to seven years of indentured servitude in America for stealing milk. After serving her time, she bought her own farm on the Patapsco River near Baltimore, in what was then an English colony, the Province of Maryland, as well as two African slaves. She eventually freed both and married one of them, a man named Banna Ka - which was later changed to Bannaky, giving the farm the name of Bannaky Springs. Their daughter, Mary Bannaky, eventually allowed one of the family's other slaves2, Robert, to buy his freedom and later married him. Benjamin Banneker was born to Mary and Robert on 9 November, 1731, a free man because his mother was born free.
Benjamin grew up at Bannaky Springs, learning to work the land. He was taught to play the flute and the violin and had a rudimentary elementary education, having been taught to read from his family Bible by his grandmother, and attended a Quaker school3. At age 15, he quit school in order to take over the running of the farm, making his work easier by devising a system of irrigation ditches that ensured good tobacco harvests even in drought years.
From Farmer to Scientist
Banneker's discovery of the world of astronomy and mathematics was prompted by a rather banal incident when he was 21. A friend of the family, Josef Levi, owned a pocket watch, and Banneker requested permission to examine it more closely. He took it apart completely, making precise, detailed drawings of each part, then reassembled it and returned it in working order to its owner. He used the drawings as a basis for building his own wooden pocket watch, and later a large wooden clock, which was much bigger and required him to re-calculate the gear ratios and number of teeth. It was the first striking clock to be built entirely in America, and kept accurate time for almost 50 years.
News of this feat soon spread, and he was able to set up a business repairing clocks and watches, and retired from full-time farming. He also caught the eye of industrialist Ellicot brothers. They lent him books and astronomical instruments and may have collaborated with Banneker to build a 'Great Clock'. After his parents died, Banneker built a 'study shed' on the farm, where he spent the evenings teaching himself a variety of subjects, voraciously reading any books he could lay his hands on. From about 1773 onward, he devoted much time to astronomy and higher mathematics, accurately predicting eclipses contrary to the findings of better-known contemporaries. He was also a keen naturalist, maintaining and experimenting in his garden despite no longer being a farmer, and publishing treatises on such varied subjects as beekeeping and the life-cycle of the 17-year locust.
Benjamin Banneker was also fond of mathematical riddles, which he presented in verse. Here is one such riddle, The Puzzle of the Cooper and the Vintner, from Banneker's pen.
A cooper and a vintner sat down for a talk,
Both being so groggy that neither could walk;
Says cooper to vintner, 'I'm the first of my trade,
There's no kind of vessel but what I have made,
And of any shape, sir, just what you will,
And of any size, sir, from a tun to a gill.'
'Then,' says the vintner, 'you're the man for me.
Make me a vessel, if we can agree,
The top and the bottom diameter define,
To bear that proportion as fifteen to nine,
Thirty-five inches are just what I crave,
No more and no less in the depth will I have;
Just thirty-nine gallons this vessel must hold,
Then I will reward you with silver or gold --
Give me your promise, my honest old friend.'
'I'll make it tomorrow, that you may depend!'
So, the next day, the cooper, his work to discharge,
Soon made the new vessel, but made it too large;
He took out some staves, which made it too small,
And then cursed the vessel, the vintner, and all.
He beat on his breast, 'By the powers' he swore
He never would work at his trade any more.
Now, my worthy friend, find out if you can,
The vessel's dimensions, and comfort the man!4.
From Theory To Practice
In a time when the average life expectancy was well below 40 years for black men in the Americas, Banneker only began his work in earnest at the (relatively) advanced age of 58. He began to devote himself seriously to astronomy, often spending the night outdoors under his favourite pear tree, wrapped in a cloak, studying the stars and going to bed only after sunrise. From 1792 to 1802, he published an annual Farmer's Almanac and Ephemeris7, which contained contemporary advice on farming and medicine as well as astronomical information such as the times of tides, sunrises and sunsets, and eclipses, all calculated by Banneker himself. The Almanac was compared favourably to Poor Richard's Almanack8 but was eventually discontinued because of poor sales.
His other major accomplishment was his appointment, at age 60, to the six-man surveying team9 for the District of Columbia, site of the future capital city of the young United States of America. He was the first black presidential appointee, and soon proved his worth by his accurate work. A popular anecdote states that his team worked closely with Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French architect in charge of planning the city. L'Enfant, who had first arrived in America as a military engineer working for Major General Lafayette, was supposedly10 dismissed due to his temper and returned to France, taking the only complete set of blueprints with him. Banneker is said to have reproduced the plans from memory, saving the government both the time and the expense that a new design would have required.
The only event Banneker was not able to predict accurately was his death - he had calculated that he would only reach the age of 70, but in fact died at 74. On Sunday, 9 October, 1806, he took a walk in his gardens with one of the many scholars and scientists who visited him at his home, then excused himself as he was feeling unwell. He was later found dead on his couch11. On the day of his funeral, his house mysteriously burned down, destroying the wooden clock that he had built as a young man.
However significant his work as a scientist, Benjamin Banneker's true achievement lay in his influence on the anti-slavery movement. He persuaded President Washington's young Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to repudiate his statement that blacks were inferior thinkers by demonstrating that he himself was:
...an Ethiopian12 whose abilities as surveyor and astronomer already prove that Mr Jefferson's concluding that that race of men were void of mental endowment was without foundation.
– The Georgetown Weekly Ledger, 12 March, 1791
After Jefferson publicly questioned his fitness as a member of the surveying team, Banneker sent a copy of his Almanac and a 12-page letter to the Secretary of State, entering into a long written debate, which challenged the sincerity of a slaveholder who nevertheless called himself a 'friend to liberty', and earned the future President's deep respect. Jefferson went so far as to send copies of the Almanac to England and the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris to prove the mental ability of American blacks.
Banneker also published pamphlets against the 'absurd and false ideas' of one race's superiority over another. A precise summary of his aims appears in the preface to his 1796 Almanac, written by his white editor:
The labours of the justly celebrated Banneker will likewise furnish you with a very important lesson, Courteous Reader, which you will not find in any other almanac, namely, that the Maker of the Universe is no respector of colours; that the colour of the skin is no way connected with the strength of mind or intellectual powers; that although the God of Nature has marked the face of the African with a darker hue than his brethren, He has given him a soul equally capable of refinement.
Benjamin Banneker's gravestone marker can be seen at the Westchester Grade School in the Ellicott City region of Maryland, where Banneker lived for his entire life, except during his travels as part of the Washington, DC surveying team. When he was forgotten in Washington DC's 125th Anniversary celebrations in 1918, Henry E Baker wrote an article for The Journal of Negro History, stating that:
As there did not appear to be during this celebration any disposition to give proper recognition to the scientific work done by Banneker, the writer has thought it opportune to present in this form a brief review of Banneker's life so as to revive an interest in him and point out some of this useful man's important achievements.
The US Postal Service issued a postage stamp that depicted Banneker in 1980, and he is finally making an appearance in the history books, ready to serve as a role model for a new generation.