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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

African Americans In Mathematics: Benjamin Banneker

                 Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) of Baltimore County, Maryland was born a free man, but with plenty of familiarity to the brutality of slavery that was present at the time. Benjamin’s father, Robert, was a freed slave, and his mother, Mary, had parents who were both freed slaves. Mary’s mother, Benjamin’s grandmother, taught Benjamin to read at a young age and even pushed for Benjamin to be enrolled in a Quaker school. Benjamin’s school career did not last long, but his curiosity about mathematics was carried with him his whole life, a curiosity that would cause a great flow of scientific accomplishments.
Benjamin Banneker
          When Benjamin entered his twenties his passion for the sciences (ranging from mechanical engineering to astronomy) was bubbling. At this time, he had built a full sized grandfather clock modeled after a pocket watch, and was studying the cycles of eclipses. Benjamin continued to use his mathematical mind to create great things until his 40’s; by then, he built irrigation systems for his family farm, grain mills, and began to research bees and locusts. In 1772, the Ellicotts moved to a farm very close to the Banneker’s. The Ellicotts were Quakers; a faith that held that all races were equal and should be treated as such, and quickly noticed the brilliance of Benjamin Banneker.
            The Banneker family loaned many books to Benjamin, and encouraged him to begin calculating the exact times of eclipses to take place in the future. They also exchanged scientific research on surveying and much more. In 1791, Major Andrew Ellicott was asked to survey the land of Western New York by then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Andrew suggested Benjamin as a more capable candidate for the position, and so began Benjamin’s rich correspondence with Thomas Jefferson.
            Benjamin became fairly close to Thomas, and wrote frequently about national issues and personal happenings. Benjamin quietly suggested that Thomas should do what he could to promote racial equality from his position in government. Some of these letters, along with scientific research, plans for cities, and personal commentaries were published in Benjamin’s Almanacs. The series of six annual almanacs were printed in the consecutive years leading up to the end of his life, and was the pinnacle of his scientific career.
The cover of Benjamin's 1795 Almanac



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