Benjamin Banneker’s Clock…How Did He Do It?

Benjamin Banneker was born a free man in Maryland on November 9, 1731, and lived as a land-owning farmer of modest means. So, how did Benjamin Banneker become a historical figure? Banneker’s invention of the clock propelled his reputation.

Banneker with clock

Sometime in the early 1750s, Banneker borrowed a pocket watch from a wealthy acquaintance, took the watch apart, and studied its components and inner workings. He 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 completed construction of a working wooden clock in 1753. The clock was amazingly precise. As the result of the attention his self-made clock received, Banneker was able to start up his own watch and clock repair business.

 

Banneker’s clock kept accurate time and struck the hours for over 50 years until it was destroyed along with most of Banneker’s other belongings in a mysterious house fire that took place on the day of Banneker’s funeral. Benjamin Banneker has been credited for making the first clock to be built completely in America.

Banneker, the Abolitionist!

In yesterday’s post, we learned more about Banneker’s Almanac. Even more exciting is the fact that he used his notoriety as the publisher of an Almanac to advocate for American slaves!

 

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In 1791, Thomas, who was then Secretary of State, a white supremacist, and a slave owner, pronounced Blacks mathematically inferior. On August 19, 1791, in response to Jefferson’s declaration of mathematical inferiority, Banneker sent Jefferson a copy of his almanac, along with a twelve-page letter requesting aid in improving the lot of American Blacks. In his letter, Banneker proclaimed that, by sending him the Almanac, he was “unexpectedly and unavoidably led” to develop a discourse on race and rights.

 

Banneker made it a point to “freely and cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race.” Though not himself a slave, Banneker encouraged Jefferson to accept “the indispensable duty of those who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature,” by ending the “state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed.” (In case you need to look this word up like I did, “thraldom” means a state of control or bondage to an owner or master.)

 

Appealing to Jefferson’s “measurably friendly and well-disposed” attitude toward blacks, Banneker presumed that he would “readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us.”

 

After acknowledging that by writing to Jefferson he was taking “a liberty which seemed to me scarcely allowable,” considering “the almost general prejudice and prepossession which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion,” Banneker launched into a critical response to Jefferson’s published ideas about the inferiority of blacks.

 

With restrained passion, Banneker chided Jefferson and other framers of the Declaration of Independence for the hypocrisy “in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” Citing Jefferson’s own words from the Declaration — the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” — Banneker challenged Jefferson and his fellows “to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to” African Americans.

 

Click here to read the full text of his historic letter of resistance!

Benjamin Banneker Facts

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  • Benjamin Bannker was born on November 9, 1731, and died on October 9, 1806.
  • He was a self-taught, free-born African-American. In short, Banneker was never a slave.
  • He was a mathematician, astronomer, scientist, farmer, and writer.
  • As an astronomer, he predicted the Solar Eclipse of 1789.
  • As a young adult, between the age of 20 – 25 years old, he constructed a wooden clock based on a borrowed pocket watch. That wooden clock kept accurate time for over 40 years!
  • In 1791, he assisted in surveying land for the development of Washington D.C.
  • He is most famous for his series of almanacs which he published annually.
  • An ephemeris, which gives the positions of naturally occurring astronomical objects in the sky at a given time or times, is included in his most famous Almanac.
  • He was a voice of social change as he worked with politicians.
  • He is featured on a 1980 stamp issued by the U.S. Post Office.

Our Community Celebrates Benjamin Banneker Week!

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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.