Benjamin Banneker

(History of the World: The 17th and 18th Centuries)

Article abstract: Banneker’s calculations provided the essential data for almanacs published from 1792 through 1797. A free black in a slave state, Banneker overcame obstacles of rural isolation, little formal education, racial prejudice, and alcoholism to establish himself as a respected scientist, earn a place on the crew that surveyed the District of Columbia, and become a symbol of racial equality in the abolitionist movement.

Early Life

Benjamin Banneker’s American antecedents came in bonds to colonial Maryland. His grandmother, Molly Welsh, was a convict transported from England to Maryland in about 1683. After completing a period of servitude, she became a free landowner in the western part of Baltimore County near the Patapsco River. In 1692, Molly bought two Africans and in a few years restored freedom to both. One of the men, named Bannka, claimed to be the kidnaped son of an African king. In defiance of laws that forbade miscegenation, Molly married the prince and took Banneky as her surname.

The Bannekys had four daughters. The oldest, Mary, born in about 1700, married an African who recently had been given freedom as a baptismal gift. He had chosen Robert as his Christian name and, when married, took Banneky as his surname. The name’s spelling varied until the mid-eighteenth century, when it settled at Banneker. Three of the four children born to Robert and Mary grew to maturity. The oldest, and the only son, was Benjamin, born on November 9, 1731.

In about 1729, Robert bought twenty-five acres of land close to Molly’s farm. On March 10, 1737, when Benjamin was five years old, Robert purchased one hundred acres from the nearby Stout plantation. The title was in Robert and Benjamin’s names to assure that the family could protect its freedom should Robert die suddenly. Maryland laws were not sympathetic to free blacks and authorized reenslavement of those who did not own property.

Banneker’s education was rudimentary. His grandmother taught him to read from the Bible. For a few months, he attended a country school where the schoolteacher—probably a Quaker—taught black and white children. Benjamin learned to write a very clear, even beautiful, script and mastered the fundamentals of mathematics through basic algebra. At some point, he also learned to play the flute and the violin.

Though meager, this education powerfully shaped the course of Banneker’s life. He purchased his own Bible in 1763, read it diligently, and sprinkled his writings with scriptural quotations. He never formally joined a Christian denomination, but he often attended Quaker, and sometimes Methodist, services. His reading interests went beyond the Bible to literature in general. He painstakingly compiled a small library, composed essays in his own commonplace book, and wrote poetry.

Mathematics, though, was the subject that stimulated his intellectual curiosity the most. He had unusual abilities with numbers. While a young man, he became locally famous for being able to solve fairly complex computations in his head. He had a special fondness for mathematical puzzles and liked to trade tricky problems with his neighbors.

It was probably during such an exchange with a neighbor that Banneker first saw and then borrowed a watch. The timepiece fascinated him, and he dismantled it to observe its moving parts. Using the watch as a model, Banneker produced a clock made entirely of hand-carved hardwoods. The clock kept accurate time, struck the hours, and was the wonder of the Patapsco valley.

Banneker completed the clock in 1753, when he was twenty-two. His father died six years later, leaving Benjamin the sole owner of the Stout acreage. The rest of the property was divided among Benjamin and his two married sisters. Banneker lived with his mother until she died in 1775. He never married and lived the rest of his life on his well-kept, productive farm. He might have died in obscurity had not the Ellicott brothers bought land adjoining the Banneker farm.

Life’s Work

Joseph, Andrew, and John Ellicott brought their large families and the families of several workers to the Patapsco valley in 1771, when Banneker was forty. Before they were fully settled, the Ellicotts and their workers bought food from the existing farms. Andrew Ellicott’s young son George and Banneker developed a special friendship. At age fifteen in 1775, George was recognized as a mathematical prodigy, an accomplished surveyor, and a gifted astronomer. With George’s encouragement and assistance, Banneker rapidly mastered advanced mathematics and became fascinated with astronomy. In the fall of 1788, George loaned Banneker books on mathematics and astronomy, a telescope, a set of drafting...

(The entire section is 1968 words.)