Each year, during the week of November 9th, Americans celebrate “Benjamin Banneker Week” to honor the contributions of this great mathematician. For many students, mathematics is viewed as a faceless, and sometimes meaningless, subject, but learning more about the men and women who have shaped mathematics can inspire generations. Banneker is one such individual.
Born outside of Baltimore, Maryland on November 9, 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born a free black and was generally self-taught through most of his young adult life. Banneker began to display his brilliance as an engineer while he was a young man. First, he loved to solve puzzles and later he invented the the first (mathematically perfect) clock, which was made entirely of hand carved wooden parts. This clock kept accurate time for decades.
Banneker’s love for learning encouraged him to begin studying astronomy and advanced mathematics from sets of books loaned to him by a neighbor. As a result of these studies, he was able to predict solar and lunar eclipses and became the author of an internationally published almanac. Then, Banneker used his celebrity for the good of Black people: the international recognition of his almanac gave Banneker a platform to fight for the abolishment of slavery. He famously composed a letter addressed to Thomas Jefferson, in which he insisted black Americans possess the same intellectual ability and should be afforded the same opportunities as white Americans. This letter led to an ongoing correspondence between the two men, and led to Banneker receiving a considerable amount of support by abolitionist groups in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Banneker was also selected to assist Major Pierre L’Enfant to survey and develop the city plans for our nation’s capital, which was later named the District of Columbia. After L’Enfant abruptly quit the project, Benjamin Banneker was able to reproduce the plans – from memory – for the entire city in just 2 days. These plans provided the layout for the streets, buildings, and monuments that still exist in Washington D.C.
Visit the Benjamin Banneker Day website (www.benjaminbannekerday.weebly.com) to learn more about Benjamin Banneker, and how you and your family can participate in this year’s celebration.