Banneker, Benjamin

Banneker, Benjamin,

1731–1806, African-American inventor, astronomer, and mathematician, b. Baltimore co., Md., at what is now Ellicott's Mills. A free black, Banneker was essentially self-taught. He built an an irrigation system for his family's farm and in 1753 constructed a working wooden clock after studying the design of a watch. He became friends with the Ellicott family, and George Ellicott loaned him astronomy and mathematics books as well as astronomical instruments, with which he began his study of the heavens, eventually forecasting eclipses. Having taught himself advanced mathematics and surveying, he helped (1791) Major Andrew Ellicott survey the boundaries for the District of Columbia. He authored a series of almanacs (1792–97) that included tables of his astronomical calculations as well as political and medical writings and tide tables, and a copy of his first almanac to Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state, along with writings on the evils of slavery and an appeal for abolition.
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Banneker, Benjamin

(1731–1806) astronomer, mathematician; born near Baltimore, Md. Grandson of an Englishwoman and a freed black slave, but son of a slave father and freed black mother, he was allowed to attend a local elementary school where he showed a talent for math and science. As a youth, he made a clock entirely out of wood that kept time for some 50 years. Although his main occupation was farming, he devoted his spare time to applied sciences. Between 1792–1802, he published an almanac that used his astronomical and tide calculations and his weather predictions along with proverbs, poems, and essays contributed by himself and others; this almanac was often cited by opponents of slavery as evidence of African-Americans' abilities. Thomas Jefferson, who knew of Banneker's work, had him hired in 1791 to assist the surveyors laying out the new capital and the District of Columbia. He in turn did not shrink from urging Jefferson to abolish slavery and to adopt more progressive policies for black Americans, of whom he was probably the best known in his day and for some decades.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.