Benjamin Banneker, Inventor   Leave a comment

Family history and early life

It is difficult to verify much of Benjamin Banneker’s family history. Some writers have stated that he was a grandson of a European American named Molly Welsh, who came to colonial America as an indentured servant.[2] Researchers have questioned this, as Banneker described himself only as having an African ancestry.[2][3] None of Banneker’s surviving papers describe a white ancestor or identify the name of his grandmother.[2] The first published description of Molly Welsh as having come from Europe and as having been white was based on interviews with Molly’s descendents that took place during and after 1836, long after the deaths of both Molly and Benjamin.[2]

The story goes that Molly met a slave named Banneka when she purchased him to help establish a farm located near the future site of Ellicott’s Mills (see Ellicott City, Maryland, History) west of Baltimore, Maryland.[4] This part of Maryland was out of the mainstream of the colonial South, and as a result had a more tolerant attitude toward African Americans than did colonial areas in which slavery was more prevalent.[4]

One of Banneker’s biographers has suggested that Banneka may have been a member of the Dogon tribe, which is reputed to have a historical knowledge of astronomy (see Dogon and Sirius).[5] The biographer further suggested that Banneka may have cleared Molly’s land, solved irrigation problems, and implemented a crop rotation for her.[5] Soon afterwoods, Molly apparently freed and married Banneka, who may have shared his knowledge of astronomy with her.[6]

Benjamin’s mother, Mary, was apparently the daughter of Molly and Banneka. Although born after Banneka’s death, Benjamin may have acquired some of his grandfather’s knowledge via Molly, who may have taught him how to read, farm, and interpret the sky as Banneka had taught her.[5] Little is known about Benjamin’s father Robert, a first-generation slave who had fled his owner.[6]

As a young teenager, Banneker met and befriended Peter Heinrichs, a Quaker farmer who established a school near Banneker’s family’s farm. Heinrichs shared his personal library with Banneker and provided Banneker’s only classroom instruction.[6] (During Banneker’s lifetime, Quakers were leaders in the anti-slavery movement and advocates of racial equality in accordance with their Testimony of Equality belief.[7])

Once he was old enough to help on his parents’ farm, Benjamin’s formal education ended. He spent most of the rest of his life at the farm.


Apparently using as a model a pocket watch he had borrowed from a merchant or traveller, Banneker carved wooden replicas of each piece and used the parts to make a clock that struck hourly (See: Striking clock). He completed the clock in 1753, at the age of 22. The clock continued to work until his death.[8]

Neighbors, work, and study

After his father died in 1759, Banneker lived with his mother and sisters. Then in 1771, a white Quaker family, the Ellicotts, moved into the area and built mills along the Patapsco River. Banneker supplied their workers with food, and studied the mills. In 1788 he began his more formal study of astronomy as an adult, using books and equipment that George Ellicott lent to him. The following year, he sent George Ellicott his work on the solar eclipse. In February 1791, Major Andrew Ellicott, a member of the same family, hired Banneker to assist in the initial survey of the boundaries of the 100-square-mile (260 km2) federal district (initially, the Territory of Columbia; later, the District of Columbia) that Maryland and Virginia would cede to the federal government of the United States for the nation’s capital in accordance with the federal Residence Act of 1790 and later legislation (see Boundary Stones (District of Columbia)).[9][10][11]

Banneker’s activities on the survey team resembled those used in celestial navigation during his lifetime. His duties consisted primarily of making astronomical observations at Jones Point in Alexandria, Virginia, to ascertain the location of the starting point for the survey and of maintaining a clock that he used when relating points on the surface of the Earth to the positions of stars at specific times.[12] Because of illness and the difficulties in helping to survey the area at the age of 59, Banneker left the boundary survey in April 1791 and returned to his home at Ellicott’s Mills to work on an ephemeris. Andrew Ellicott continued the survey with his brothers Benjamin and Joseph Ellicott and other assistants through 1791 and 1792.[13][14]

Banneker’s almanacs and journals

Title page of an edition of Banneker’s 1792 almanac.[15]

At Ellicott’s Mills, Banneker made astronomical calculations that predicted solar and lunar eclipses for inclusion in his ephemeris. He placed the ephemeris and its subsequent revisions in a number of editions in a six-year series of almanacs which were printed and sold in six cities in four states (Baltimore, Maryland; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Wilmington, Delaware; Alexandria, Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia) for the years 1792 through 1797.[15][16][17][18][19] He also kept a series of journals that contained his notebooks for astronomical observations and his diary. The notebooks additionally contained a number of mathematical calculations and puzzles.[20][21][22]

The title page of an edition of Banneker’s 1792 Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris stated that the publication contained:

the Motions of the Sun and Moon, the True Places and Aspects of the Planets, the Rising and Setting of the Sun, Place and Age of the Moon, &c.—The Lunations, Conjunctions, Eclipses, Judgment of the Weather, Festivals, and other remarkable Days; Days for holding the Supreme and Circuit Courts of the United States, as also the useful Courts in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Also—several useful Tables, and valuable Receipts.—Various Selections from the Commonplace–Book of the Kentucky Philosopher, an American Sage; with interesting and entertaining Essays, in Prose and Verse—the whole comprising a greater, more pleasing, and useful Variety than any Work of the Kind and Price in North America.[15][23]

The 1792 almanac included the times for the rising and setting of the sun and moon. Weather forecasts and dates for yearly feasts were also included. Readers also saw a tide table for the Chesapeake Bay and home treatments for illnesses. In his 1793 almanac, Banneker included letters sent between Thomas Jefferson and himself.[17] The title page of a Baltimore edition of his 1795 almanac had a woodcut portrait of him as he may have appeared, but which a writer later concluded was more likely a portrayal of an idealized African American youth.[18][24]

The almanacs’ editors prefaced the publications with adulatory references to Banneker and his race. The 1792 and 1793 almanacs contained lengthy commendations that James McHenry, a signer of the 1787 United States Constitution and self-described friend of Banneker, had written in 1791.[25][26][27] An excerpt from a 1796 edition stated:

Not you ye proud, impute to these the blame
If Afric’s sons to genius are unknown,
For Banneker has prov’d they may acquire a name,
As bright, as lasting, as your own.[17][28]

Supported by Andrew, George and Elias Ellicott and heavily promoted by the Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery of Maryland and of Pennsylvania, the early editions of the almanacs achieved commercial success.[29] After these editions were published, William Wilberforce and other prominent abolitionists praised Banneker and his works in the House of Commons of Great Britain.[29]

Views on peace, education, and the relationship of government and religion

Banneker’s 1793 almanac contained a copy of “A Plan of Peace-office for the United States” that Benjamin Rush had authored.[30][31][32][33] The Plan proposed the appointment of a “Secretary of Peace” and described the Secretary’s powers. The Plan stated:

1. Let a Secretary of Peace be appointed to preside in this office; …; let him be a genuine republican and a sincere Christian ….

2. Let a power be given to the Secretary to establish and maintain free schools in every city, village and township in the United States; … Let the youth of our country be instructed in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and in the doctrines of a religion of some kind; the Christian religion should be preferred to all others; for it belongs to this religion exclusively to teach us not only to cultivate peace with all men, but to forgive—nay more, to love our very enemies….

3. Let every family be furnished at public expense, by the Secretary of this office, with an American edition of the Bible….

4. Let the following sentence be inscribed in letters of gold over the door of every home in the United States: The Son of Man Came into the World, Not To Destroy Men’s Lives, But To Save Them.

5. …[34][35]

Views on slavery and racial equality

Banneker expressed his views on slavery and racial equality in a letter to Thomas Jefferson and in other documents that he placed within his 1793 almanac. The almanac contained copies of his correspondence with Jefferson, poetry by the African American poet Phillis Wheatley and by the English anti-slavery poet William Cowper, and anti-slavery speeches and essays from England and America.[17]

Letter to Thomas Jefferson on racism

On August 19, 1791, after departing the federal capital area, Banneker wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 had drafted the United States Declaration of Independence and in 1791 was serving as the United States Secretary of State.[36][37][38][39] Quoting language in the Declaration, the letter expressed a plea for justice for African Americans. To further support this plea, Banneker included within the letter a handwritten manuscript of an almanac for 1792 containing his ephemeris with his astronomical calculations.

In the letter, Banneker accused Jefferson of criminally using fraud and violence to oppress his slaves by stating:

…Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, 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.[40]

The letter ended:

And now, Sir, I shall conclude, and subscribe myself, with the most profound respect,
Your most obedient humble servant,

An English abolitionist, Thomas Day, had earlier written in a 1776 letter:

If there be an object truly ridiculous in nature, it is an American patriot, signing resolutions of independency with the one hand, and with the other brandishing a whip over his affrighted slaves.[42]

Thomas Jefferson’s reply to Banneker

Without directly responding to Banneker’s accusation, Jefferson replied to Banneker’s letter in a series of nuanced statements that expressed his interest in the advancement of the equality of America’s black population.[43] Jefferson’s reply stated:

Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791.
I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir,
Your most obedt. humble servt.
Th. Jefferson[44][45]

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet, to whom Jefferson sent Banneker’s almanac, was a noted French mathematician and abolitionist.[46][47] It appears that the Academy of Sciences itself did not receive the almanac.[48]

Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Marquis de Condorcet

When writing his letter, Banneker informed Jefferson that his 1791 work with Andrew Ellicott on the District boundary survey had affected his work on his 1792 ephemeris and almanac by stating:

…. And although I had almost declined to make my calculation for the ensuing year, in consequence of that time which I had allotted therefor, being taken up at the Federal Territory, by the request of Mr. Andrew Ellicott, ….[41][49]

On the same day that he replied to Banneker (August 30, 1791), Jefferson sent a letter to the Marquis de Condorcet that contained the following paragraph relating to Banneker’s race, abilities, almanac and work with Andrew Ellicott:

I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro, the son of a black man born in Africa, and of a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable Mathematician. I promised him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new federal city on the Patowmac, & in the intervals of his leisure, while on that work, he made an almanac for the next year, which he sent to me in his own handwriting, & which I inclose to you. I have seen very elegant solutions of Geometrical problems by him. add to this that he is a very respectable member of society. he is a free man. I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talent observed in them is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends.[50][51]

Thomas Jefferson’s later opinion of Banneker and his letter

In 1809, three years after Banneker’s death, Jefferson expressed a different opinion of Banneker in a letter to Joel Barlow that criticized a “diatribe” that a French abolitionist, Henri Grégoire, had written in 1808:[52]

The whole do not amount, in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves of Banneker. We know he had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicot, who was his neighbor and friend, and never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.[24][53]

Later life, death and burial

Banneker never married. Because of declining sales, his last almanac was published in 1797. After selling much of his farm to the Ellicotts and others, he died in his log cabin nine years later on October 9, 1806, exactly one month before his 75th birthday. His chronic alcoholism, which worsened as he aged, may have contributed to his death.[54] A commemorative obelisk that the Maryland Bicentennial Commission and the State Commission on Afro American History and Culture erected in 1977 stands near his unmarked grave in an Oella, Maryland, churchyard.[55][56][57]

Mythology of Benjamin Banneker

A substantial mythology exaggerating Banneker’s accomplishments has developed during the two centuries that have elapsed since he lived.[4][58][59][60][61][62] Several such urban legends describe Banneker’s alleged activities in the Washington area around the time that he participated in the federal district boundary survey. Others involve his clock and his almanacs. All lack support by historical evidence. Some are contradicted by such evidence.

Plan of the City of Washington

While Andrew Ellicott and his team were conducting the federal district boundary survey, Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant was preparing a plan for the federal capital city (the City of Washington), which would be located in a relatively small area bounded by the Potomac River, the Anacostia River (known at the time as the “Eastern Branch”), the base of the escarpment of the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line, and Rock Creek at the center of the much larger 100-square-mile (260 km2) federal district (see: L’Enfant Plan).[63][64] In late February 1792, President George Washington dismissed L’Enfant, who had failed to have his plan published and who was experiencing frequent conflicts with the three Commissioners that Washington had appointed to supervise the planning and survey of the federal district and city.[65][66][67]

According to a Banneker legend, L’Enfant took his plans with him after his dismissal, leaving no copies behind. As the story is told, Banneker spent two days reconstructing the bulk of the city’s plan from his presumably photographic memory. According to the story, the plans that Banneker purportedly drew from memory provided the basis for the later construction of the federal capital city. Titles of works relating this fable have touted Banneker as “The Man Who Saved Washington”, “An Early American Hero” and as one of “100 Greatest African Americans”.[68][69][70]

Citing a 1963 article in the Washington Star newspaper,[71] a 1990 documentation form related the following version of the story when supporting a listing in the National Register of Historic Places for twelve historic marker stones from the federal district boundary survey:

…. Fearing profiteering land speculators, L’Enfant would not alow anyone to see the plan. Ordered by the commissioners to reveal the plan, he instead left the United States, taking all copies of his plan for the District of Columbia with him. Banneker reproduced it from memory in minute detail, thereby allowing the work to continue.[72]

In another version of the tale, Banneker and Andrew Ellicott both surveyed the area of, and configured the final layout for, the placement of major governmental buildings, boulevards and avenues while reconstructing L’Enfant’s plan. According to this version, Banneker either “made astronomical calculations and implementations” that established points of significance in the capital city, including those of the “16th Street Meridian” (see White House meridian), the White House, the Capitol and the Treasury Building, or “helped in selecting the sites” of those features.[73]

A contemporary reprint of Andrew Ellicott’s 1792 “Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia”

However, historical research has shown that the legend cannot be correct.[58] Banneker left the federal capital area and returned to Ellicott’s Mills in April 1791.[58] At that time, L’Enfant was still developing his plan for the federal city and had not yet been dismissed from his job.[58][74] L’Enfant presented his plan to President Washington in August 1791, four months after Banneker had left.[58][75][76][77][78]

Further, there never was any need to reconstruct L’Enfant’s plan. After largely completing the district boundary survey, Andrew Ellicott began a survey of the federal city in accordance with L’Enfant’s plan. During a contentious period in February 1792, Ellicott informed the Commissioners that L’Enfant had refused to give him an original plan that L’Enfant possessed at the time.[79][80] However, Washington and others, including Ellicott, had in their possession at least one original and copy of various versions of the plan that L’Enfant had also prepared. Andrew Ellicott, with the aid of his brother, Benjamin Ellicott, then revised L’Enfant’s plan, despite L’Enfant’s protests.[62][79][80] Shortly thereafter, Washington dismissed L’Enfant. After L’Enfant departed, Andrew Ellicott continued the city survey in accordance with the revised plan that he and his brother had prepared.[67][77][81]

There is no historical evidence that shows that Banneker was involved in any of this.[62] As a researcher has reported, the letter that Andrew Ellicott addressed to the Commissioners in February 1792 describing his revision of L’Enfant’s plan did not mention Banneker’s name.[62][82] Thomas Jefferson did not describe any connection between Banneker and the plan for the federal city when relating his knowledge of Banneker’s works in his 1809 letter to Joel Barlow.[53]

L’Enfant did not leave the United States after ending his work on the federal capital city’s plan. Soon afterwards, he began to plan the city of Paterson, New Jersey.[83] The United States Congress acknowledged the work that he had performed when preparing his plan for the city of Washington by voting to pay him for his efforts.[84]

The U.S. Library of Congress owns a copy of a plan for the federal city that bears the adopted name of its author, “Peter Charles L’Enfant”.[85][86] A 1902 report of a committee of the United States Senate, an inlay of the plan in a Washington, D.C., plaza constructed in 1980 (Freedom Plaza), and at least one book relating the history of the District of Columbia contain copies of the portion of the plan that identifies L’Enfant as the document’s author.[63][87][88] The U.S. National Archives holds a copy of “Ellicott’s engraved Plan superimposed on the Plan of L’Enfant showing the changes made in the engraved Plan under the direction of President Washington”.[89] As an original version of L’Enfant’s plan still exists, President Washington and Ellicott clearly had at least one such version available for their use when L’Enfant departed.

In November 1971, the National Park Service held a public ceremony to dedicate and name Benjamin Banneker Park on L’Enfant Promenade in Washington, D.C.[90][91] The U.S. Department of Interior authorized the naming as an official commemorative designation celebrating Banneker’s role in the survey and design of the nation’s capital.[90] Speakers at the event hailed Banneker for his contributions to the plan of the capital city after L’Enfant’s dismissal, claiming that Banneker had saved the plan by reconstructing it from memory.[91] A researcher later pointed out that these statements were erroneous.[91]

In May 2000, Austin H. Kiplinger and Walter E. Washington, the co-chairmen of the Leadership Committee for the planned City Museum of Washington, D.C., wrote in The Washington Post that the museum would remind visitors that Banneker had helped complete L’Enfant’s project to map the city.[92] A letter to the editor of the Post entitled “District History Lesson” then responded to this statement by noting that Andrew Ellicott was the person who revised L’Enfant’s plan and who completed the capital city’s mapping, and that Banneker had played no part in this.[93]

Appointment to planning commission for Washington, D.C.

In 1918, Henry E. Baker, an assistant examiner in the United States Patent Office, wrote of Banneker in The Journal of Negro History (now titled the The Journal of African American History): “It is on record that it was on the suggestion of his friend, Major Andrew Ellicott, …, that Thomas Jefferson nominated Banneker and Washington appointed him a member of the commission…” whose duties were to “define the boundary line and lay out the streets of the Federal Territory, later called the District of Columbia”.[94] However, Baker did not identify the record on which he based this statement. Baker additionally stated that Andrew Ellicott and L’Enfant were also members of this commission.

Historical evidence contradicts Baker’s statements. In 1791, President Washington appointed Thomas Johnson, Daniel Carroll and David Stuart to be the three commissioners who, in accordance with the authority that the Residence Act had granted to the President, would oversee the survey of the federal district, and “according to such Plans, as the President shall approve”, provide public buildings to accommodate the federal government in 1800.[10][95][96][97] The Residence Act did not authorize the President to appoint any more than three commissioners that could serve at the same time.[98] As Banneker, Andrew Ellicott, and L’Enfant performed their tasks during the time that Johnson, Carroll and Stuart were serving as commissioners, President Washington could not have legally appointed either Banneker, Ellicott or L’Enfant to serve as members of the “commission” that Baker described.

In 1999, a researcher reported that an exhaustive survey of U.S. government repositories, including the Public Buildings and Grounds files in the National Archives and collections in the Library of Congress, had failed to identify Banneker’s name on any contemporary documents or records relating to the selection, planning and survey of the City of Washington. The researcher also noted that none of L’Enfant’s survey papers that the researcher had found had contained Banneker’s name.[99]

Other legends and embellishments

In 1930, writer Lloyd Morris claimed in an academic journal article entitled “The Negro ‘Renaissance'” that “Benjamin Banneker attracted the attention of a President…. President Thomas Jefferson sent a copy of one of Banneker’s almanacs to his friend, the French philosopher Condorcet….”[100] However, Thomas Jefferson sent Banneker’s almanac to the Marquis de Condorcet in 1791, a decade before he became President in 1801.[39][44]

Benjamin Banneker cartoon by Charles Alston, 1943, claiming that Banneker had been a “city planner”, “was placed on the commission which surveyed and laid out the city of Washington, D.C.”, and had “constructed the first clock made in America”.

In 1943, an African American artist, Charles Alston, who was at the time an employee of the United States Office of War Information, designed a cartoon that embellished the statements that Henry E. Baker had made in 1918.[94] Like Baker, Alston incorrectly claimed that Banneker “was placed on the commission which surveyed and laid out the city of Washington, D.C.” Alston extended this claim by also stating that Banneker had been a “city planner“. His cartoon further stated that Banneker had “constructed the first clock made in America”.[101]

In 1976, the singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder celebrated Banneker’s mythical feats in his song “Black Man”, from the album Songs in the Key of Life. The lyrics of the song state:

Who was the man who helped design the nation’s capitol, made the first clock to give time in America and wrote the first almanac? Benjamin Banneker – a black man.

The question’s answer is incorrect. Banneker did not help design either the U.S. Capitol or the nation’s capital city. The first known clockmaker of record in America was Thomas Nash, an early settler of New Haven in 1638.[102] A known American clock was made in 1680.[103] A researcher has noted that at least four clockmakers were working in Annapolis, Maryland before 1753, when Banneker completed his own clock.[104] “Pierce’s (Peirse’s) Almanac of 1639 calculated for New England and printed by Stephen Day” preceded Banneker’s birth by nearly a century.[105][106]

In 1999, the National Capital Memorial Commission concluded that the relationship between Banneker and L’Enfant was such that L’Enfant Promenade was the most logical place in Washington, DC on which to construct a proposed memorial to Banneker.[107] However, a researcher has been unable find any historical evidence that shows that Banneker had any relationship at all to L’Enfant or to L’Enfant’s plan for the city.[91][99]

In 2000, historians John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., wrote in the eighth edition of the book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, whose first edition had been published in 1947, that the “most distinguished honor that Banneker received was his appointment to serve with the commission to define the boundary lines and lay out the streets of the District of Columbia.” The writers, who referenced Baker’s 1918 article, also stated that Banneker’s friend, George Ellicott, was a member of the commission and that Thomas Jefferson had submitted Banneker’s name to President Washington.[108]

However, neither Banneker nor George Ellicott received appointments to serve on any such commission. Further, although Andrew Ellicott led the survey that defined the District’s boundary lines and, with L’Enfant, laid out the capital city’s streets, George Ellicott did not participate in either of these activities. Additionally, there is no historical evidence that shows that President Washington participated in the process that resulted in Banneker’s appointment as an assistant to Andrew Ellicott on the District boundary survey team.[9] A researcher has been unable to find any documentation that shows that Washington and Banneker ever met each other.[109]

In 2005, actor James Avery narrated a DVD entitled A History of Black Achievement in America. A quiz based on a section of the DVD entitled “Emergence of the Black Hero” asked:

Benjamin Banneker was a member of the planning commission for ____________ .
a. New York City
b. Philadelphia
c. Washington, D.C.
d. Atlanta[110]

Commemorative U.S. quarter dollar coin nomination

In 2008, the District of Columbia government considered selecting an image of Banneker for the reverse side of the District of Columbia quarter in the 2009 District of Columbia and United States Territories Quarter Program. The narrative supporting this selection alleged that Banneker helped design the new capital city, was “among the first ever African-American presidential appointees” and was “a founder of Washington, D.C.”[111] After the District chose to commemorate another person on the coin, the District’s mayor, Adrian M. Fenty, sent a letter to the Director of the United States Mint, Edmund C. Moy, that claimed that Banneker “played an integral role in the physical design of the nation’s capital.”[112] However, no president ever appointed Banneker to any position. Further, Banneker played no role at all in the design, development or founding of the nation’s capital beyond his two-month participation in the two-year survey of the federal district’s boundaries.[53]

Historical markers

Several historical markers in Maryland and Washington, D.C., contain information relating to Benjamin Banneker that is unsupported by historical evidence or is contradicted by such evidence:

Historical marker in Benjamin Banneker Historical Park, Baltimore County, Maryland

A commemorative historical marker that the Maryland Historical Society erected on the present grounds of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park in Baltimore County, Maryland, states that Banneker “published the first Maryland almanac” in 1792.[113] A researcher has reported that this statement is incorrect.[114] The researcher stated that Banneker modeled the format of his almanac after a series of almanacs (The United States Almanack) that Andrew Ellicott had authored from 1781 to 1785.[115][116] Ellicott had lived in Maryland during some of those years.[116] Ellicott’s almanacs were published in Baltimore, Maryland.[117]

Further, Banneker did not “publish” his 1792 almanac. Although he authored this work, others printed, distributed and sold it.[15]

Historical marker in Benjamin Banneker Park, Washington, DC

A historical marker that the National Park Service erected in Benjamin Banneker Park in Washington, D.C., states in an unreferenced paragraph:

Banneker became intrigued by a pocket watch he had seen as a young man. Using a knife he intricately carved out the wheels and gears of a wooden timepiece. The remarkable clock he constructed from memory kept time and struck the hours for the next fifty years.[118][119]

However, Banneker completed his clock at the age of 22, when he was still a young man.[8] No historical evidence shows that he constructed the clock from memory.[120] Further, it is open to question as to whether the clock was actually “remarkable”.[104] Wooden clocks were apparently constructed in America in 1715, and were in commercial production there by 1745, eight years before Banneker completed his own clock.[102][121]

A photograph on the historical marker illustrates a wooden striking clock that a Connecticut clockmaker built around the same time that Banneker constructed his own clock.[118][122] The marker does not indicate that the clock is not Banneker’s.[118]

Historical marker in Newseum, Washington, DC

In 2008, when the Newseum opened to the public on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., visitors looking over the Avenue could read a historical marker that stated:

Benjamin Banneker assisted Chief Surveyor Andrew Ellicott in laying out the Avenue based on Pierre L’Enfant’s Plan. President George Washington appointed Ellicott and Banneker to survey the boundaries of the new city.[123]

Little or none of this appears to be correct. Banneker had no involvement with the laying out of Pennsylvania Avenue or with L’Enfant’s Plan.[58] Andrew Ellicott surveyed the boundaries of the federal district (not the “boundaries of the new city”) at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson.[96] Ellicott (not Washington) appointed Banneker to assist in the boundary survey.[9

Posted February 15, 2012 by pennylibertygbow in Inventors

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