Benjamin Banneker was an astronomer, mathematician, surveyor, almanac maker and a vocal critic of slavery. His stand against racial discrimination is well documented but some of the other Benjamin Banneker major accomplishments are disputed. There are many who accept the accomplishments at their face value but there are others who cite the lack of evidence to infer that some accomplishments are hearsay.
1. Benjamin Banneker Made The First American Wooden Clock
There are many who credit Banneker for having created the first wooden clock. That is of course a wrong inference. There were wooden clocks before him in many parts of the world. What he did was make the first wooden clock on American soil and without any reference to existing designs or technology. He was enticed with a pocket watch owned by his friend and he chose to understand its mechanisms. He took apart the pocket watch, bit by bit, and understood the technology. He replicated the parts and functions but he made them of wood. He handcrafted every wooden component of the clock and perfected the mechanisms over a span of two years. The clock was a huge success. It worked and it stood the test of time for over four decades. The clock was later destroyed in a fire. This is one of the most notable Benjamin Banneker major accomplishments because he was not trained and he wasn’t mentored by any watchmaker of the time.
2. Prediction of the 1789 Solar Eclipse
These days, interests in astronomy are highly underrated. That is partly because of what we already know. Back in the eighteenth century, not much was known. The world did not completely understand the solar system, the galaxy or the universe. There were still some conflicting and contrarian arguments which refuted the popularly accepted description of our universe. Not only was Banneker acutely interested in astronomy but he actually succeeded in predicting the solar eclipse of 14th April, 1789. Again, Banneker was not a trained astronomer or a mathematician. He used the books that amateur astronomer George Elliot lent him to develop his understanding.
3. More Precise Almanacs in the West
Almanacs were quite common in the east, particularly in India at the time. The west was not very accustomed with the concept or practice of using published almanacs. Through 1790s, Benjamin Banneker published almanacs detailing the positioning of certain celestial bodies. He wrote about the seasons and confined his data to the states of Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Virginia. There were almanacs in the west but not as precise as those in the east. Banneker’s almanacs were hailed for their accuracy.
4. Surveyor of Washington DC
Benjamin Banneker was in the team that surveyed the area that was to become the capital of the United States. He surveyed the boundaries of the District of Columbia. Legend has it that the principal architect of Washington DC, Pierre Charles L’Enfant was dismissed from the project due to some reason and that Banneker redrew the entire plan with the help of his recollection of the original design. This testament to Benjamin Banneker’s amazing memory is not documented.
5. Stand against Slavery and Racial Discrimination
Benjamin Banneker started writing against slavery and racial discrimination in his almanacs. He could not fill up all the pages of the almanacs with astronomical data. He used fillers where he extensively penned his thoughts. He was born to a slave and a freed slave. He used his personal experience and his observations to advocate for the abolition of slavery. He also wrote on politics and peace.
During the early days of publishing the almanacs, Banneker had written a letter to the US Secretary of State at the time, Thomas Jefferson, highlighting the need to free African Americans from slavery. It is reported that the letter accompanied his first published almanac. Thomas Jefferson replied to the letter appreciating Banneker’s knowledge of astronomy and supported his advocacy against slavery and racial discrimination. Many historians highlight the lack of evidence or any almanac to counter the claim of the letter trail.
There are many reasons why most of Benjamin Banneker major accomplishments are not substantiated. In those days, the family history of blacks or African Americans was well documented but not their life. Many were homeschooled or self taught and thus their education or even their professional accomplishments did not find much space in mainstream media or publications. Benjamin Banneker did not pen down any book as such that can be used to know more about the details. The log cabin that he used to live in caught fire the day he was buried. Any item or information that could have been in the cabin which could be used to substantiate his accomplishments was destroyed in the fire.
Yet, the fact that the US Postal Service has a 1980 postal stamp commemorating Banneker is reason enough to believe some of his accomplishments, if not all.