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The Banneker Center for Economic Justice presents:

Who Was Benjamin Banneker?

Benjamin Banneker was born in Maryland on November 9, 1731. His father and grandfather were former slaves.

A farmer of modest means, Banneker nevertheless lived a life of unusual achievement. In 1753, the young man borrowed a pocket watch from a well-to-do neighbor; he took it apart and made a drawing of each component, then reassembled the watch and returned it, fully functioning, to its owner.

From his drawings Banneker then proceeded to carve, out of wood, enlarged replicas of each part. Calculating the proper number of teeth for each gear and the necessary relationships between the gears, he constructed a working wooden clock that kept accurate time and struck the hours for over 50 years.

At age 58, Banneker began the study of astronomy and was soon predicting future solar and lunar eclipses. He compiled the ephemeris, or information table, for annual almanacs that were published for the years 1792 through 1797. "Benjamin Banneker's Almanac" was a top seller from Pennsylvania to Virginia and even into Kentucky.

In 1791, Banneker was a technical assistant in the calculating and first-ever surveying of the Federal District, which is now Washington, D.C.

The "Sable Astronomer" was often pointed to as proof that African Americans were not intellectually inferior to European Americans. Thomas Jefferson himself noted this in a letter to Banneker.

Banneker died on Sunday, October 9, 1806 at the age of 74. A few small memorial traces still exist in the Ellicott City/Oella region of Maryland, where Banneker spent his entire life except for the Federal survey. It was not until the 1990s that the actual site of Banneker's home, which burned on the day of his burial, was determined.

In 1980, the U.S. Postal Service issued a postage stamp in his honor.


Banneker's life is inspirational. Despite the popular prejudices of his times, the man was quite unwilling to let his race or his age hinder in any way his thirst for intellectual development.

The definitive biography of Benjamin Banneker is: The Life of Benjamin Banneker, by Silvio A. Bedini. Rancho Cordova, California: Landmark Enterprises, 1984 (originally published in 1972 by Charles Scribner's Sons). An expanded and revised edition was published in 1999.


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Just for fun, here is a little puzzle by Banneker -- he was fond of things like this:

The Puzzle of the Cooper and the Vintner

A cooper and a vintner sat down for a talk,
Both being so groggy that neither could walk;
Says cooper to vintner, "I'm the first of my trade,
There's no kind of vessel but what I have made,
And of any shape, sir, just what you will,
And of any size, sir, from a tun to a gill."
"Then,"says the vintner, "you're the man for me.
Make me a vessel, if we can agree,
The top and the bottom diameter define,
To bear that proportion as fifteen to nine,
Thirty-five inches are just what I crave,
No more and no less in the depth will I have;
Just thirty-nine gallons this vessel must hold,
Then I will reward you with silver or gold --
Give me your promise, my honest old friend."
"I'll make it tomorrow, that you may depend!"
So, the next day, the cooper, his work to discharge,
Soon made the new vessel, but made it too large;
He took out some staves, which made it too small,
And then cursed the vessel, the vintner, and all.
He beat on his breast, "By the powers" he swore
He never would work at his trade any more.
Now, my worthy friend, find out if you can,
The vessel's dimensions, and comfort the man!

 

P.S. We do not give out the answer to the puzzle.

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