The inestimable genius of Benjamin Banneker

Herb Boyd | 1/26/2017, midnight
Three things brought to mind of the genius Benjamin Banneker. Last month Cyril deGrasse Tyson, the father of noted astrophysicist ...
Benjamin Banneker

Three things brought to mind of the genius Benjamin Banneker. Last month Cyril deGrasse Tyson, the father of noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, died. “Hidden Figures,” a film about three Black women mathematicians and engineers at NASA, is a box office success. And we have just witnessed a presidential transition.

OK, how does Banneker fit into these moments? Well, to begin with, he was a phenomenal mathematician, somewhat an astronomer, a surveyor, a deviser of almanacs and a visionary inventor.

Banneker, the son an ex-slave, was born free on Nov. 9, 1731, in Ellicott’s Mills, Md. His mother, Mary Banneky, was the daughter of an English woman named Molly Welsh, who was a former indentured servant. Bannka, his father, often asserted that he was a descendant of African royalty.

Although Banneker was taught to read by his maternal grandmother, he was basically self-educated after a brief stint in a Quaker school. As a young man, he was the owner of a farm near Baltimore. His brilliance was evident after he constructed an irrigation system and the building of a clock of all wooden, movable parts that kept accurate time for more than 50 years until his death.

He taught himself astronomy and was able to accurately forecast lunar and solar eclipses. Selling tobacco was his main source of income.

Once his reputation as a successful farmer, inventor, surveyor and mathematician was widely known he was contracted by the Ellicott family and for them he constructed a series of gristmills in the 1770s. His relationship with the Ellicott family was fortuitous because it afforded him contact with the family patriarch, George, who extended his vast library to Banneker.

George’s cousin, Andrew Ellicott, employed Banneker to assist in surveying territory for the nation’s capital city. While working with Andrew he built an observatory tent using a zenith sector to record the movement of the stars. An illness cut short his tenure with Andrew in 1791.

“Banneker's true acclaim, however, came from his almanacs, which he published for six consecutive years during the later years of his life, between 1792 and 1797,” according to Biography.com. “These handbooks included his own astronomical calculations as well as opinion pieces, literature and medical and tidal information, with the latter particularly useful to fishermen. Outside of his almanacs, Banneker also published information on bees and calculated the cycle of the 17-year locust.”

But almanacs, astronomy, inventions and other pursuits, did not stifle his concern about human rights, and this concern came to public notice during his exchanges with Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state. Banneker challenged Jefferson, a slaveholder, to “embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us.” When Jefferson stated in his letters that no African person possessed the requisite intelligence to question the knowledge of a white man, Banneker sent him a handwritten manuscript of an almanac in 1792. In other words, Banneker demanded that Jefferson live up to the high-sounding rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence.

In response to Banneker’s obvious genius, Jefferson admitted that he, Banneker, may be an exception to the rule of African ignorance. He told Banneker that he took the liberty of extending his almanac the secretary of the French Academy of Science because “he considered it as a document to which your whole color had a right for their justification against the doubts which have entertained of them.” Banneker, Biography.com added, “published Jefferson’s letter alongside his original piece of correspondence in his 1793 almanac. Banneker’s outspokenness with regard to the issue of slavery earned him the widespread support of the abolitionist societies in Maryland and Pennsylvania, both of which helped him publish his almanac.” Jefferson’s letter can be found at the Library of Congress.

Banneker never married, devoting his life to scientific studies. By 1797, sales of his almanac had declined and he discontinued publication. In the following years, he sold off much of his farm to the Ellicotts and others to make ends meet, continuing to live in his log cabin.

It should be noted that when Ellicott was drafting the layout of Washington, D.C. he was rewarded by Banneker’s consultancy, particularly his depth of knowledge on land measurements and engineering. Banneker is often ignored and not given the credit he deserved on designing the streets of the nation’s capital.

On Oct. 9, 1806, after his usual morning walk, Banneker died in his sleep, just a month short of his 75th birthday. In accordance with his wishes, all the items that had been on loan from his neighbor, George Ellicott, were returned by Banneker’s nephew. Also included was Banneker’s astronomical journal, providing future historians one of the few records of his life known to exist, Biography.com noted.

Two days later, at the family burial ground a few yards from this house, Banneker was laid to rest. During the services, mourners were startled to see his house had caught on fire, quickly burning down. Nearly everything was destroyed, including his personal effects, furniture and wooden clock. The cause of the fire was never determined.

His life was remembered in an obituary in the Federal Gazette of Philadelphia and has continued to be written about over the ensuing two centuries. With limited materials having been preserved related to Banneker’s life and career, there’s been a fair amount of legend and misinformation presented. In 1972, scholar Sylvio A. Bedini published an acclaimed biography on the 17th-century icon—“The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science.” A revised edition appeared in 1999.