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This Day in History: November 9th

Surveyor and Astronomer Benjamin Banneker Was Born

Astronomer, mathematician and urban planner, Benjamin Banneker, was born on this day in 1731. Banneker was primarily self-educated but that did not change his brilliance, as he was one of the first African Americans to gain distinction in science. 

The Maryland native was born to free parents who operated a family farm. His maternal grandmother taught him how to read and he briefly attended a small Quaker school. Banneker taught himself astronomy and was able to accurately forecast lunar and solar eclipses. 

He started inventing at a young age, even building a wooden clock that kept precise time. Banneker took over his family’s farm after the death of his father. But he was unsuccessful in cultivating a viable tobacco-selling business.

George Ellicott, a Quaker and amateur astronomer whose family owned nearby mills, encouraged Banneker to study astronomy. Ellicott had a large personal library and loaned Banneker numerous books on astronomy and other fields. By the 1790s, Banneker began working as a land surveyor. Andrew Ellicott, the cousin of George Ellicott hired Banneker to assist in surveying territory for the nation’s capital. He helped survey the original boundaries of the District of Columbia. 

However, it was Banneker’s contributions in math and astronomy that attracted the attention of Thomas Jefferson. The two were so close that when Banneker compiled an annual almanac of his calculations on medicine and astronomy, he would send the first copy to Jefferson. In addition to sending the almanacs, Banneker would also question Jefferson and challenge him to do what he could to ensure racial equality.

The almanacs turned out to be Banneker’s true acclaim. Banneker published the almanacs for six consecutive years. The almanacs consisted of his astronomical calculations, opinion pieces, literature, medical and tidal information (which was particularly useful to fishermen).

Outside of the almanacs, Banneker also published information on bees and made calculations on the cycle of locust. And he continued to conduct scientific studies throughout the rest of his life.

On October 9, 1806, Banneker died in his sleep, just a month short of his 75th birthday. He left behind his astronomical journal, which allowed future historians to have records of his life.

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