Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, in Ellicott Mills (now Ellicott City), Maryland. He was educated by Quakers, however, most of his education was self-taught.
In 1753, at the age of 22, he created a working clock from wood after studying the watch of a friend. It took him two years to finish the clock, which kept accurate time in hours, minutes, and seconds until his death.
Banneker became interested in astronomy through a local surveyor named George Ellicott, who loaned him astronomy books.
Around 1773, Banneker began making astronomical calculations that enabled him to successfully forecast a 1789 solar eclipse. His estimate made well in advance of the celestial event, contradicted predictions of better-known mathematicians and astronomers.
Banneker's mechanical and mathematical abilities impressed many, including Thomas Jefferson who encountered Banneker after George Elliot had recommended him for the surveying team that laid out Washington D.C.
In 1791, George Washington commissioned George Ellicott and French engineer Pierre L'Enfant to help plan the construction of the nation's capital on a ten square mile area of land. Ellicott invited Banneker to be his assistant. A dispute between some Americans and Frenchmen led L'Enfant to abandon it and take the drafted plans with him. It is said that, over the course of two days, Banneker reproduced the intricate plans from memory, a complete layout of the streets, parks, and major buildings, preventing a major delay. He is said to have been hailed as "the man who saved Washington." However, there is no evidence to support this legend.
For more on the legend: In 2008, when the District of Columbia government considered selecting an image of Banneker for the reverse side of the District of Columbia quarter in the 2009 District of Columbia and United States Territories Quarter Program, the investigation summary included this excerpt. 'The narrative supporting this selection alleged that Banneker helped design the new capital city, was "among the first ever African-American presidential appointees" and was "a founder of Washington, D.C." After the District chose to commemorate another person on the coin, the District's mayor sent a letter to the Director of the United States Mint that claimed that Banneker "played an integral role in the physical design of the nation's capital. "However, no president ever appointed Banneker to any position. Further, Banneker played no role at all in the design, development or founding of the nation's capital beyond his two-month participation in the two-year survey of the federal district's boundaries."'
On August 19 1791, Banneker sent a copy of his first almanac to secretary of state Thomas Jefferson. In an enclosed letter, he questioned the slaveholder's sincerity as a "friend to liberty." He urged Jefferson to help get rid of "absurd and false ideas" that one race is superior to another. He wished Jefferson's sentiments to be the same as his, that "one Universal Father . . . afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties." Jefferson responded with praise for Banneker's accomplishments.
Shortly after returning to his farm in April 1791, Banneker issued his first of some ten annual Farmer's Almanacs, which were published from 1792 to 1802 by several printers and sold widely in both England and the United States. Banneker charted the movement of heavenly bodies and tides. He successfully predicted several solar eclipses. Farmers and navigators relied on this important information. The almanacs also included information on medicines and medical treatment. He may be best known for these almanacs.
Banneker and his sisters were born free and grew up on a self-sufficient 100-acre tobacco farm. Growing up, he spent much of his free time devising and solving mathematical puzzles. It was not until after his retirement from farming at the age of 59 that Banneker began to study astronomy through borrowed books, becoming a man of science and mathematics through unassisted experimentation and close observation of natural phenomena.
Benjamin Banneker died in October 9, 1806 at age 74.
On February 15, 1980, during Black History Month, the United States Postal Service issued in Annapolis, Maryland, a 15 cent stamp that illustrated a portrait of Banneker. An image of Banneker standing behind a short telescope mounted on a tripod is superimposed upon the portrait. The device shown in the stamp resembles Andrew Ellicott's transit and equal altitude instrument, which is presently in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The stamp is part of the Postal Service's Black Heritage stamp series.
Compiled from www.anothershadeofcolor.com, www.about.com and Wikipedia.