Benjamin Banneker Biography

Illustrated portrait of American author, astronomer, and farmer Benjamin Banneker (1731 - 1806), mid to late 18th century.(Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)
Stock Montage / Contributor/ Archive Photos/ Getty Images

Benjamin Banneker was an African-American astronomer, clockmaker, and publisher who was instrumental in surveying the District of Columbia.

Early Life

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 seven years. At the end of that time, she bought her own farm near Baltimore along with two other slaves.

Later, she freed the slaves and married one 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, 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 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.

An Interest in Watches & Clock Making:

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 the Benjamin Banneker 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 six-man team to help design the new capital city, Washington, DC. This made him the first African-American presidential appointee. 

In addition to his other work, Banneker 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 continued to keep his garden. Over the years, he played host many distinguished scientists and artists.

Although he had predicted his own death at age 70, Benjamin Banneker actually survived another four years. His last walk (accompanied by a friend) came on October 9, 1806. He felt ill and went home to rest on his couch and died.

His memorial still exists at the Westchester Grade School in the Ellicott City/Oella region of Maryland, where Banneker spent his entire life except for the Federal survey.  In 1980, the US Postal Service issued a postage stamp in his honor.

Edited by Carolyn Collins Petersen.

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Greene, Nick. "Benjamin Banneker Biography." ThoughtCo, Mar. 2, 2017, Greene, Nick. (2017, March 2). Benjamin Banneker Biography. Retrieved from Greene, Nick. "Benjamin Banneker Biography." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 23, 2017).