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Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught astronomer, writer and scientist. This was a significant achievement for an African American living during the American Revolution and the early history of the United States. Unfortunately, many of his original papers were destroyed by fire. Benjamin Banneker was featured on a commemorative postage stamp in 1980 and there are parks, museums, schools and streets in the United States named after Benjamin. Today, Benjamin Banneker is regarded as one of the greatest American scientists who managed to become respected as such even despite his social status.
Sometime in the late 1600s, a young English maid named Molly Welsh was accused of stealing milk. After serving her sentence, Molly bought a small farm and a couple of slaves to help her farm the land. She freed the slaves and eventually fell in love with one of them, a man named Banneka (Wittekind 9). Banneker’s descent has already been curious long before the future scientist was even born. It is largely due to his half-white descent and kindness of his grandmother, that he managed to be born into a family that would properly stimulate his development and scientific interest.
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Molly and Banneka had four children, one of their daughters, Mary, married a freed slave named Robert. That marriage produced Benjamin Banneker who was born in Baltimore County on November 9, 1731, Benjamin was born a free man, not a slave. He grew up on the family farm, where he worked hard, even as a child, helping with the tobacco crops, chopping wood, and doing all sorts of chores on the farm (Wittekind 6-7). Despite being born a free man, Banneker still had some issues with his education due to racial segregation and stereotypes of America at the time.
As a child, Benjamin had few schooling opportunities, attending a small Quaker school where he discovered an interest in mathematics. Even when he could not attend school, Benjamin took the books he could to continue his studies. In the region, he became known as an intelligent young man with a knack for fixing cars and solving mathematical problems (Wittekind 9-10). His race or the prejudice of his environment would not break his endless enthusiasm and interest in mathematics that would soon provide him the recognition as a reward.
As Benjamin got older, he became interested in the stars, reading books on astronomy and using mathematics to calculate the movements of the stars. He even accurately predicted a solar eclipse, and later began to use his skills as a surveyor. He got a job surveying and planning Washington DC, the new capital of the United States (Wittekind 11-12). The reward was, thus, much higher than anyone could expect, however, at the time, great expertise was required, regardless of race or ethnic background.
Beginning in 1792, Benjamin began publishing his famous Almanac, which contained all kinds of information, including astronomical data, weather forecasts, tables, essays, commentaries, and tables of tides. The Almanac was published every year for six years until 1797 (“Benjamin Banneker”). This was one of the first great scientific works by an African American, which still brings great historical and scientific value.
Hoping to see an end to slavery, Benjamin sent letters to Thomas Jefferson saying that all men were created equal, regardless of race. He used his almanac as an example of what a free black man can do. Jefferson answered him and agreed that the almanac was impressive but did nothing to end slavery (“Benjamin Banneker”). Apparently, the American President at the time separated the man from his work, even though Jefferson was known for his compassion to the enslaved.
The legend of Benjamin continued to grow as he built his own clock. Watches were rare in America at that time. The story goes that Benjamin met a watch merchant, then made detailed drawings of the inside of the watch and learned how it worked. Then, a few years later, Benjamin built a larger version of the clock out of wood, designing his own work clock. The clock he built kept perfect time and ran for more than forty years before it burned down in a fire (“Benjamin Banneker”). The wooden clock that young Banneker constructed largely impressed many people in his community, particularly for his craftsmanship that added well to his strong intellectual background.
Never married, Benjamin Banneker continued to pursue his scientific research throughout his life. By 1797, sales of his almanac had declined, and he ceased publication. In later years, he sold most of his farm to the Ellicotts family and others to make ends meet while continuing to live in his log cabin. On October 9, 1806, after his usual morning walk, Banneker died in his sleep, just a month before his 75th birthday. In accordance with his wishes, all things that had been borrowed from his neighbor George Ellicott were returned by Banneker's nephew (“Benjamin Banneker”). Undoubtedly, Banneker lived a complete life, full of enthusiasm and curious discoveries.
The life of Benjamin Banneker is remembered in an obituary in the Federal Gazette of Philadelphia, with limited material retained relating to Banneker's life and career, and quite a bit of legend and misinformation was presented. In 1972, scholar Silvio A. Bedini published his famous biography The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African American Man of Science, Revised 1999. Benjamin Banneker's achievements extended to other areas, including civil rights.
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"Benjamin Banneker". Biography, 2022, https://www.biography.com/scientist/benjamin-banneker.
Wittekind, Erika. Benjamin Banneker: Brilliant Surveyor, Mathematician, And Astronomer. ABDO, 2015.
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