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Benjamin Banneker was born on this date in 1731. He was a self-taught, Black astronomer and mathematician.
Banneker and his sisters were born free and grew up on a self-sufficient, 100-acre tobacco farm in Ellicott, MD. Growing up, he spent much of his free time devising and solving mathematical puzzles. At the age of 22, Banneker created a working clock from wood after studying the watch of a friend. It took him two years to finish the clock, which kept accurate time in hours, minutes, and seconds until his death. Banneker became interested in astronomy through a local surveyor named George Ellicott, who loaned him astronomy books.
It was not until after his retirement from farming at the age of 59 that Banneker began to study astronomy. He did this through borrowed books, becoming a man of science and mathematics through unassisted experimentation and close observation of natural phenomena.
In 1791, George Washington commissioned George Ellicott and French engineer Pierre L'Enfant to help plan the construction of the nation's capital on a ten-square-mile area of land. Ellicott asked Banneker to be his assistant. A dispute between some Americans and Frenchmen led L'Enfant to abandon it and take the drafted plans with him. Over the course of two days, Banneker reproduced the intricate plans from memory, preventing a major delay.
Shortly after returning to his farm in April 1791, Banneker issued his first of some ten annual almanacs, which were published by several printers and sold widely in both England and the United States. Banneker charted the movement of heavenly bodies and successfully predicted several solar eclipses. Farmers and navigators relied on this important information.
Benjamin Banneker died in 1806.
2,000 years of extraordinary achievement
by Jessie Carney Smith
Copyright 1994 Visible Ink Press, Detroit, MI