Today I want to wish a happy birthday to Benjamin Banneker, the 18th Century American astronomer, mathematician, surveyor and almanac author. Banneker was born on November 9, 1731 in Baltimore County, Maryland. His mother was a free black woman and his father was a former slave from Guinea. Some historians and biographers have speculated that Banneker’s grandmother, Molly Welsh, was a white indentured servant from England. After she became free she purchased a slave named Bannaka to help establish a farm. She eventually freed him, married him and had children with him, one being Banneker’s mother. Banneker became well known in his early twenties for a wooden clock that he created by drawing the internal workings of a pocket watch.The clock struck the hour and worked till the time Banneker died in 1806. In 1791 the surveyor Maj. Andrew Ellicott hired Banneker to help finish the survey of Washington D.C. after George Washington fired the first surveyor Pierre L’Enfant. Banneker’s duties were to make astronomical calculations to establish the starting point for the survey. Banneker left the survey due to illness and returned home where he began calculating solar and lunar eclipses that he included in his almanac. His first almanac called Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris For the Year of Our Lord 1792, became so popular in the northeast that by 1794 it was being published in multiple editions. In his 1793 almanac Banneker published his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. In the letters Banneker chided Jefferson for his hypocritical views on freedom and slavery. Banneker died in his log cabin one month before his 75th birthday. He is buried in Oella, Maryland at the Mt. Gilboa African Methodist Episcopal Church. Banneker's grave is unmarked but a memorial was placed there in 1977 to commemorate his legacy.
Michael E. Palmer is a writer and photographer based in Alabama.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org