World History

Benjamin Banneker | Biography, Letter to Jefferson, Clock, Almanac, & Facts

Benjamin Banneker was primarily a self-taught astronomer, writer, and scientist. This was an important achievement for African Americans who lived early in the American Revolutionary War and in the history of the United States. Many consider him the first African-American scientist.

Benjamin Banneker Overview:

Occupation Scientist, Astronomer, and Author
Nationality American
Other names Benjamin Bannaker
Born November 9, 1731 in Baltimore County, Province of Maryland
Died October 9, 1806 in Baltimore County, Maryland
Best known for Writing a popular almanac that included astronomical calculations, commentaries, and tidal information

Biography of Benjamin Banneker:

Where did Benjamin Banneker grow up?

Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County on November 9, 1731. Unlike most black children in America at the time, Benjamin was born a free man, not a slave. He grew up on his family’s farm and worked hard there since his childhood. He helped grow tobacco, chopped firewood, and did all sorts of chores on the farm.

How was it that Benjamin was not enslaved?

Sometime in the late 16th century, a young English maid named Molly Welsh was accused of stealing milk. She was sent to America as an indentured servant. After serving her prison term, Molly bought a small farm and several slave laborers to help her farm the land. She freed the enslaved workers and eventually fell in love with one of them, a man named Bannaka.

Molly and Bannaka had four children. One of their daughters, Mary, married a freedman named Robert. In 1731 Mary and Robert got Benjamin. Because his parents were free, so was Benjamin.

Education of Benjamin Banneker

Growing up, Benjamin had little opportunity to attend school. He attended a small Quaker school for a time, where he developed an interest in science and mathematics. Even when he couldn’t go to school, Benjamin borrowed as many books as possible to continue his studies. He became known in the area as an intelligent young man who could fix machines and solve math problems.

Building a Clock

Benjamin’s legend continued to grow as he created his own watches. Watches were very rare in America at the time. The story goes that Benjamin met a merchant with a clock. He made detailed drawings of the watch’s internal components and studied how it worked. Over the next few years, Benjamin built a larger version of the clock out of wood, thereby creating his own working clock.

Astronomy and Surveying

Benjamin became interested in stars as he grew up. He read books on astronomy and used mathematics to calculate the motion of the stars. He even predicted solar eclipses accurately.

After the Revolutionary War, Benjamin began to put his skills as a surveyor to good use. He took a job as a surveyor and city planner in Washington, D.C., the new capital of the United States.

The Almanac

From 1792 Benjamin began publishing his famous almanac. The official title was “Calendars and Almanacs of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia” by Benjamin Bannerker. It contained all sorts of information: astronomical data, weather forecasts, charts, essays, commentaries, tide tables. During his six years until 1797 he published a new almanac every year.

Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Benjamin wanted the abolition of slavery. He wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson urging him to remember that all humans, regardless of race, were born equal. He used his almanac as an example of what free black people can achieve. Jefferson wrote him back and he agreed that although the almanac was impressive, he did nothing to end slavery.

Death and Legacy of Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker died on October 9, 1806. Although he saw no end to slavery in his lifetime, his life and work set an example for abolitionists of what free blacks could do.

Interesting Facts about Benjamin Banneker

The clocks he made kept excellent time and he worked for over 40 years before being destroyed in a fire.

Unfortunately, many of his original documents were destroyed in a fire.

In 1980 Benjamin his banner car appeared on a commemorative stamp.

The United States has parks, museums, schools, and streets named after Benjamin.