One of my hometown’s best claims to fame is its association with Benjamin Banneker, often referred to as “America’s First Black Man of Science.” In 1737, Banneker’s father, a former slave purchased 100 acres of land in what is now considered the western part of Catonsville. He made his son Benjamin co-owner so that the property could pass to him without any legal requirements. This also helped ensure that his family would maintain their free status in a state where slavery was common.
Banneker was fortunate in being able to attend a small Quaker school during the winter months with a few other local children, both white and black. His grandmother, a former indentured servant from England, had already taught him to read and write and he was known in his student days as a child who would rather read than play. After he was old enough to work full time on the tobacco farm with his father, his former schooling ceased. But he never stopped learning.
At the young age of 22, Banneker became famous, and people would travel for miles around to visit him. The reason for his fame was a clock he’d built out of wood. He had borrowed a pocket watch, taken it apart, and then calculated how to make working pieces of hardwood from his farm. Since he was not able to make a strong enough spring out of wood, he substituted a system of falling weights. He used a few small pieces of iron and brass and may have used the bottom of a glass bottle as the resonant piece to provide sound when the clock struck the hour. But the vast majority of the clock was composed of wood carved with rudimentary implements. With no help or training, he created a timepiece that worked for over 50 years until his death.
Although he accomplished many other feats of mathematical and scientific skill during his lifetime, Banneker’s other main claims to fame were his almanacs and his work surveying the capitol city of Washington. At the time, almanacs were used by farmers to determine when to plant crops and by mariners to forecast the tides. Again without training, Banneker was able to produce the calculations needed to predict the positions of the sun, moon and planets. These predictions were recorded in a yearly almanac. He produced almanacs for most of the 1790s and they were phenomenally popular.
Banneker’s expertise with celestial movements gave him skills needed to serve on the team surveying the new federal city. The gentleman in charge of the project, Andrew Ellicott, needed help and tried to recruit his cousin, George. While George was unable to commit to the task, he recommended his neighbor, Benjamin Banneker. At this time, however, Banneker was 60 years old and he had no field experience whatsoever in surveying.
Nevertheless, the well-known accuracy of his calculations was enough to get him the job. After several months of sleeping outside taking astronomical measurements at all hours of the night, however, he was worn out and anxious to return to his farm. So when Andrew’s brothers became available to help, Benjamin retired from the project.
Other “firsts” Banneker has been credited with include being the first to track the 17 year locust cycle, the first to study the relativity of time and space, the first American scientist to suggest that beings existed on other planets, the first to record a written hypothesis that the Star of Sirius was composed of two separate stars, and the author of the first publicly documented protest letter. While I’m not willing to stake my life on the assertion that was absolutely the first to do these things, the fact that he did them all was rather remarkable.
Today his former homestead has been incorporated into the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park with an active museum on site and a host of regular educational activities. My personal favorite is a Colonial Market Fair held in the beginning of June each year. In Washington, plans are under way to build a substantial memorial to Banneker. But as a quiet man who preferred books to socializing and never sought the limelight, Banneker would probably would have been content just to share his beloved clock with the world. Alas, on the day of his funeral, his house caught fire and the clock was destroyed. So instead of his clock, we must look to the story of his life to see how hard work and determination can build an amazing life, despite the odds.
We think of our Founding Fathers as those who set up the government of our country. But I think those who paved the way in other fields in the early days of the United States should be recognized as Founders as well. In the field of science, Banneker deserves this title, so I’m giving it to him.
To learn more about Benjamin Banneker, check out information at https://friendsofbenjaminbanneker.com or http://www.bannekermemorial.org/history.htm. One of the minor characters in my first book, Langley’s Choice, was inspired by Banneker’s grandmother, Molly. And at some point, I hope to begin work on a novel based on Molly and the family she established in Maryland.