Benjamin Banneker was one of Ameri¬ ca’s first and finest scientists, as well as one of Thomas Jefferson’s great influences. He was bom in 1731 to the daughter of Molly Walsh, a former indentured servant in her native England. Both mother and daughter purchased slaves in Maryland who later became their husbands.
Benjamin loved learning to read and write from Molly’s family Bible, but once he began attending a Quaker school, he knew his great love was mathematics. He studied so passionately that he would create his own problems just for the joy of solving them.
His early interest made him a wise inventor when he decided to recreate a pocket watch he saw on a traveling sales¬ man. Since no watches existed in America, Benjamin Banneker used all his mathemat¬ ical skill to develop plans, make the right calculations, and personally carve each gear of the first American watch.
Made entirely of wood, Banneker’s watch ran perfectly for over 40 years.Banneker’s passion for exactness also extended to the study of astronomy. In 1789, he predicted a solar eclipse that, to the sur¬ prise of skeptical astronomers, occurred just as he’d said it would on April 14.
His brilliance extended also into the realm of human rights. After reading Thomas Jefferson’s doctrine that “all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and knowing that Jefferson owned slaves, Banneker was moved to write back.
In an extremely elo¬ quent letter, Banneker told Jefferson that African-Americans were equal to white Americans in intelligence, and therefore equally entitled to rights and privileges. As proof, he included a copy of his almanac, a yearly publication documenting holidays, coming eclipses, and the hours of sunrise and sunset. Banneker’s almanac included essays on the abolition of slavery as well.
Jefferson wrote back with a new egali¬ tarian stand on the issue of race. A respect¬ ful friendship formed, and remained strong even after Jefferson became the president of the United States.Banneker went on to become one of the foremost astronomers of his age, as well as one of the men chosen to lay out the new capital city of Washington D.C. in 1791.
After Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French city planner, quit and took all his plans back to France, it was Banneker who reproduced them from memory.In October, 1806, after a lifetime of sci¬ entific discovery, Benjamin Banneker died, leaving Americans a more accurate vision of “freedom for all.”