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BLKISH Forums African-American Inventors and Scientists Wooden Clock & Authored Almanacs | Benjamin Banneker (Surveyor, Landowner and Farmer )


  • Wooden Clock & Authored Almanacs | Benjamin Banneker (Surveyor, Landowner and Farmer )


    November 1, 2020 at 10:20 am

    Benjamin Banneker (November 9, 1731 – October 19, 1806) was a free African-American almanac author, surveyorlandowner and farmer who had knowledge of mathematics and natural history. Born in Baltimore County, Maryland, to a free African-American woman and a former slave, Banneker had little or no formal education and was largely self-taught. He became known for assisting Major Andrew Ellicott in a survey that established the original borders of the District of Columbia, the federal capital district of the United States.

    Banneker’s knowledge of astronomy helped him author a commercially successful series of almanacs. He corresponded with Thomas Jefferson on the topics of slavery and racial equality, Jefferson having earlier drafted the United States Declaration of IndependenceAbolitionists and advocates of racial equality promoted and praised Banneker’s works.

    Although a fire on the day of Banneker’s funeral destroyed many of his papers and belongings, one of his journals and several of his remaining artifacts are presently available for public viewing. He is commemorated with parks, schools, streets and other tributes. However, many accounts of his life exaggerate his accomplishments or attribute to him the achievements of others.

    Early life

    Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland, to Mary Banneky, a free black, and Robert, a freed slave from Guinea who died in 1759.[2][3] There are two conflicting accounts of Banneker’s family history.

    Banneker himself and his earliest biographers described him as having only African ancestry.[4][5][6] None of Banneker’s surviving papers describe a white ancestor or identify the name of his grandmother.[5]

    However, later biographers have contended that Banneker’s mother was the child of Molly Welsh, a white indentured servant, and an African slave named Banneka.[3][5][7] The first published description of Molly Welsh was based on interviews with her descendants that took place in 1836, long after the deaths of both Molly and Benjamin.[5][8]

    According to that story, Molly purchased Banneka to help establish a farm located near the future site of Ellicott’s Mills, Maryland, west of Baltimore.[9] One biographer has suggested that Banneka may have been a member of the Dogon people, who several anthropologists have claimed had an early knowledge of astronomy (see: Dogon astronomical beliefs).[10]

    Molly supposedly freed and married Banneka, who may have shared his knowledge of astronomy with her.[11] Although born after Banneka’s death, Benjamin may have acquired some knowledge of astronomy from Molly.[10]

    genealogist who in 2016 reported an analysis of records related to Banneker’s family tree was unable to identify any documents that showed that Banneker had a white grandmother, but could not rule out that possibility. The report noted that the name “Bannaker” may have had the same origin as that of Banaka, a small village in the present-day Klay District of Bomi County in northwestern Liberia that had once participated in the African slave trade.[3][12]

    View of the Patapsco Valley from Ellicott City (June 2012)

    In 1737, Banneker was named at the age of 6 on the deed of his family’s 100-acre (0.40 km2) farm in the Patapsco Valley in rural Baltimore County.[13][14][15] A letter writer stated in 1791 that Banneker’s parents had sent him to an obscure school where he learned reading, writing and arithmetic as far as double position.[16] However, the remainder of Banneker’s early life is not well documented.

    Unverified accounts that first appeared in books published more than 140 years after Banneker’s death relate that, as a young teenager, Banneker met and befriended Peter Heinrich, a Quaker who later established a school near the Banneker family farm.[17][18] (Quakers were leaders in the anti-slavery movement and advocates of racial equality (see Quakers in the abolition movement and Testimony of equality)).[19] These accounts state that Heinrich shared his personal library and provided Banneker with his only classroom instruction.[18][20] Banneker’s formal education (if any) presumably ended when he was old enough to help on his family’s farm.[21]

    Notable works

    Around 1753, at about the age of 21, Banneker reportedly completed a wooden clock that struck on the hour. He appears to have modeled his clock from a borrowed pocket watch by carving each piece to scale. The clock purportedly continued to work until his death.[21][22]

    Total solar eclipse (1999)

    After his father died in 1759, Banneker lived with his mother and sisters.[2][23] In 1768, he signed a Baltimore County petition to move the county seat from Joppa to Baltimore.[24] An entry for his property in a 1773 Baltimore County tax list identified Banneker as the only adult member of his household.[25]

    In 1772, brothers Andrew EllicottJohn Ellicott and Joseph Ellicott moved from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and bought land along the Patapsco Falls near Banneker’s farm on which to construct gristmills, around which the village of Ellicott’s Mills (now Ellicott City) subsequently developed.[26][27] The Ellicotts were Quakers who held the same views on racial equality as did many of their faith.[26][28] Banneker studied the mills and became acquainted with their proprietors.[29][30]

    In 1788, George Ellicott, the son of Andrew Ellicott, loaned Banneker books and equipment to begin a more formal study of astronomy.[31][32][33] During the following year, Banneker sent George his work calculating a solar eclipse.[31][32][34]

    In 1790, Banneker prepared an ephemeris for 1791, which he hoped would be placed within a published almanac.[35] However, he was unable to find a printer that was willing to publish and distribute the work.[31][36]

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