Timeline and Facts about Benjamin Banneker

Read on to know some fascinating facts about Benjamin Banneker, a famous black scientist, cartographer and inventor from the 18th century.
The colour of the skin is in no way connected with strength of the mind or intellectual powers.
 - Benjamin Banneker

In a racially divided America of the 18th century, Benjamin Banneker stood out as a shining proof of the fact that race doesn't determine a person's nature. Devoid of formal education for the majority of his life, Banneker was a stunning autodidact. He excelled in astronomy, which he had been taught by his grandmother, and used this knowledge to write comprehensive almanacs, and chart the territory of the federal district.

Banneker's genius brought him in contact with several influential politicians, including Thomas Jefferson. Instead of using the acquaintance for personal gains, Banneker used it to promote his anti-slavery agenda.

Banneker's fame has also resulted in several urban legends about him, an overwhelming majority of which are not true.

The Life of Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, to a former-slave father and a free black woman. Because he was born to a free mother, Banneker was a free black man according to the law. Despite being born in a time rife with slavery and discrimination against blacks, Banneker was fortunate to be around inclusive, abolitionist white people who recognized his talent and helped him in every way they could.

Banneka, Benjamin Banneker's grandfather, was a member of the Dogon tribe -- an African clan reputed to have an encyclopedic knowledge in astronomy. Banneka was bought by Molly Walsh, but the two later married and he was freed. Banneka and Molly's daughter, Mary, was Benjamin Bennaker's mother. Very little is known about Banneker's father.

Benjamin was born after Banneka's death, but inherited the knowledge of astronomy via Molly. She taught him how to read, interpret the sighting of celestial bodies and even the basics of farming.

Banneker's friendship with Peter Heinrichs, the founder of a Quaker school, brought him into contact with classroom instruction. The Quaker belief in the equality of all races facilitated continual support to Banneker from the Quaker community.

Banneker's genius was clear to all when he built a wood replica of a pocket watch at the age of 21. The watch was designed to sound an alarm every hour and was so excellently engineered that it worked until after Banneker's own death! The most impressive aspect of this construction was that it was only the second timepiece Banneker had ever seen, and possibly the first pocket watch!

In 1788, Benjamin pursued formal education in astronomy and prepared an informal thesis on solar eclipses. In 1791, he was hired as a surveyor by Major Andrew Ellicott to demarcate the 100-mile federal district that Maryland and Virginia were to cede to the Federal Government. He used astronomical observations to accomplish the task; he maintained a log of the locations of stars in relation with the designated border.

As part of an ephemeris project, he accurately predicted lunar and solar eclipses. His journals and notebooks offer great insight into his unique mathematical calculations on the rising and setting times of the sun on a daily basis, age of the moon, eclipse timings and weather forecasts.

Being an unusually prominent black citizen, he was emphatically vocal against racism and slavery. Copies of his personal correspondence with Thomas Jefferson were instrumental in proposing the 'peace office' -- the Department of Peace -- within the federal government. He used his essays and articles to plead the cause of justice for African-Americans. He did not even spare Jefferson while denouncing fraudulent measures adopted when dealing with slaves.

Banneker is mainly famous for his almanacs. He carried out the publication in six cities, Wilmington, Delaware; Alexandria, Virginia; Petersburg, Virginia; Richmond, Virginia;Baltimore, and Philadelphia, for six years, 1792-1797, until poor sales forced him to close up shop. The almanacs contained not just astronomical information, but essays on various other subjects, such as farming and slavery.

Banneker died in his log cabin on October 9, 1806 (some biographers claim that he died on October 25; it is certain that he died in October 1806). His alcoholism had worsened during the years of poverty and was the trigger for his deteriorating health. His remains were buried in Oella, Maryland.

Banneker's contributions towards securing equality for America's black population were impressive. He minced no words when representing his community, and used his own publications as a mouthpiece to great effect.

He was a devout Christian, having learned to read using the Bible as his workbook, and believed that teachings of Christianity would bring peace to a racially divided America.

Banneker is a lasting icon of racial equality and contribution to science from black people. He is often given the honor of being the first Negro Man of Science.