Benjamin Banneker 1731 - 1806
Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught mathematician who accurately calculated astronomical events based on observations he made of patterns in the nighttime sky. He was an intellectual wonder, and thankfully his ever-wondering eye took a break from astronomy, to survey land. Banneker can be attributed with helping lay out the current U.S. capital. He was commissioned to survey the land currently known as Washington D.C.
Banneker was an 18th century version of Galileo. He studied the stars and published several almanacs of states along the eastern seaboard. Advanced mathematics he learned from reading old textbooks that he borrowed.
From this independent study Banneker also learned how to use an ephemeris, an uncommon but valuable skill at the time. An ephemeris is a tool used to gather a dataset for celestial navigation. With Banneker’s expertise using ephemerides and his unique invention, it was only a matter of time before he was asked to join a national project.
After only seeing two timepieces in his life, Banneker built a clock made entirely from wood, that kept accurate time for decades. Possibly most notable of his genius was the correct prediction of the 1789 solar eclipse. Banneker broke from other noteworthy astronomers with this forecasting. His gumption drew attention far and wide, including from Major Andrew Ellicot, the surveyor commissioned by the federal government to survey the land that would become the nation’s capital. Though Banneker was not his first second or third choice, Ellicot selected Banneker to assist with the survey due largely to his mastery of the ephemeris.
Banneker detested then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson’s account of their being an “inferior” class of people. In addition to sending a handwritten almanac manuscript, Banneker wrote Jefferson a personal letter demanding Jefferson do more to promote racial equality. Recognizing his own privilege being born to two free parents, Banneker acknowledged in his letter to Jefferson that he was a free Black and understood he was exercising a liberty in writing him, a liberty not afforded to all. Jefferson expressed admiration of Banneker’s work and informed Bannaker that he forwarded the mathematicians almanac to the French Academy of Sciences.
Banneker should not only be remembered as an astronomer, or mathematician, but also as an early Civil Rights hero who challenged Thomas Jefferson to end the genocidal enterprise of slavery.