Benjamin Banneker: Biography, Facts & Inventions

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  • 0:02 Banneker's Early Years
  • 1:01 Benjamin Banneker's Career
  • 3:04 Some Facts About Banneker
  • 3:50 Banneker's Two Big Inventions
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cirrelia Thaxton

Cirrelia is an educator who has taught K-12 and has a doctorate in education.

Learn about the great African American scientist, mathematician, and inventor, Benjamin Banneker. His life, career, and legacy are a testament to the great mental improvement one can achieve.

Banneker's Early Years

Benjamin Banneker was one of the first African Americans to gain notoriety for his work and study. He was born on November 9, 1731 in Ellicott's Mills, Maryland, to Robert, a freed slave from Guinea, and Mary Banneky. Mary was the daughter of an English indentured servant named Molly Welsh, and her freed slave, Bannaka. Since both of his parents were free, Banneker escaped from the clutches of slavery. Living on a 100-acre family farm with his parents and three sisters, he grew up in a stable home where he was able to develop into a learned young man.

His grandmother, Molly, taught young Benjamin to read and to write, and he attended a Quaker school for a short while. Yet, essentially, he was self-educated and an avid reader who spent a lot of his time borrowing books. As a young scholar, Banneker showed great aptitude for mathematics and science. For instance, he studied the stars and developed a passion for astronomy.

Benjamin Banneker's Career

When his father died, Banneker was a young man, and he inherited the family farm. To maintain it successfully, he took up the profession of tobacco farmer. His neighbor, George Ellicott (a wealthy industrialist), approached him with a proposition: if Banneker would help Ellicott master astronomy, he would supply Banneker with a telescope and astronomy books.

Through the years, the two men's relationship strengthened to the point where Ellicott recommended Banneker to his cousin, Major Andrew Ellicott, who was Chief Surveyor of the national capital. In 1791, he offered Banneker a position on his staff as an astronomer. The work was hard, but Banneker appreciated the opportunity to contribute to the historical project of planning for the development of a new capital.

In 1792, Banneker began one of his most acclaimed projects: the writing of an almanac. By 1797, he had authored six publications of the almanac, which included astronomical calculations, literature, medical and tidal information, and editorials. These almanacs sold very well.

Banneker was an inspiration to many people who were involved in the abolitionist movement, which was a political movement to bring both a formal and informal end to slavery in the United States. In his 1793 almanac, Banneker included a copy of a letter he had sent to the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, warning him about the dangers of slavery. The abolitionist societies of Pennsylvania and Maryland supported his efforts by publishing and distributing his almanacs.

On October 9, 1806, Banneker died quietly in his home in Ellicott's Mills. He was buried two days later in his family's burial compound. As a testament to his reputation, the Federal Gazette wrote the following obituary: 'Mr. Banneker is a prominent instance to prove that a descendant of Africa is susceptible of as great mental improvement and deep knowledge into the mysteries of nature as that of any other nation.'

Some Facts about Banneker

Never married, Benjamin Banneker would study all night, sleep all morning, and work in the afternoon. He published a treatise on bees and calculated the 17-year locust's cycle. Also, he collaborated with other mathematicians through the mail and was able to predict both lunar and solar eclipses with his astronomy studies.

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