A Man of Many Firsts
In 1753, Benjamin Banneker engineered the first striking clock made entirely of wooden parts. This invention marked the advent of his rise to fame as people would travel from far and near to witness his remarkable invention. Made entirely of hand carved wood parts and pinions, the clock struck on the hour for over 50 years.
Banneker was the first to track the 17 year locust cycle, a valuable revelation to farmers enabling them to prepare for attacks by locusts on their crops. He was among the first scientific farmers to employ crop rotation and water irrigation techniques. He enjoyed eviable results as a tobacco farmer, and harvested his own food crop.
Banneker was among the first Americans, and the first African-American, to publish almanacs, a valuable tool in an agricultural economy. His almanacs were publicly sold from 1792 to 1799, and did quite well.
Banneker was the first high profile Black Civil Rights leader. He risked life and limb to work with the French and American Abolitionists of the day, nearly a century prior to Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. He voiced opposition to slavery and the execution and oppression of Native Americans at a time when Africans were being brought to the shores of America en masse as slaves . Most of the Founding Fathers that Banneker worked with on the Federal City project were slave owners.
Banneker was the first scientist to study the relativity of time and space, and his revelations on the topic preceded Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by two centuries.
Banneker was the first to disclose in his writings that the Star of Sirius is two stars rather than one. His hypothesis was not confirmed until the event of the Hubble Telescope two centuries later at NASA.
Banneker was the first American scientist to suggest that sentient beings perhaps lived on other planets, a topic barely touched upon in the 18th century.
Banneker was a member of the first presidential appointed team charged with the establishment of the nation’s capitol. His astronomical calculations and implementations played a critical role is establishing points of astronomical significance in the nation’s capitol, including the location of the 16th Street Meridian, Boundary Stones, White House, Capitol and Treasury Building.
Banneker worked as Assistant to Major Andrew Ellicott, America’s Geographer General, thereby serving as a critical member of the team of the first presidential commission. In this capacity, he provided the astronomical calculations for the project, and assisted in the reconstruction of the plans for laying out the streets of the nation’s capitol. He and Major Ellicott both surveyed the area of, and configured the final layout for, the placement of major governmental buildings, boulevards and avenues as drawn for the map for the nation’s capitol, producing the finished document commonly deferred to as the L’Enfant Plan.
The actual L’Enfant Plan was the result of their work in recreating the draft of the document initially worked on by L’Enfant, Thomas Jefferson and President Washington. Contrary to popular belief, the L’Enfant Plan was not produced by Major Charles L’Enfant, [but by Banneker from memory. It] was named for L’Enfant at the behest of President George Washington in honor of L’Enfant having provided the preliminary vision for the layout of the nation’s capitol.
Banneker was the author of the first publicly documented protest letter. The letter was written to then Secretary of State , Thomas Jefferson , denouncing the Bill of Rights as disingenuous. Banneker questioned the rationale of the imperialistic position taken by the Founding Fathers, especially in light of their rebellion against the tyranny imposed on them by England as settlers seeking a better life in America.
Banneker, in his debut almanac of 1792 , was the first to recommend the establishment of a U.S. Department of Peace. It wasn’t until nearly two hundred years later that the U.S. Institute of Peace was established by Congressional authorization in 1984. On their website, at www. usip.org, the organization acknowledges Banneker for his role as the pioneering agent of this idea and states:
The first formal proposal for the establishment of an official U.S. government peace institution dates to 1792. The product of efforts by architect and publisher Benjamin Banneker and physician and educator Dr. Benjamin Rush. The proposal called for establishing a “Peace Office” on equal footing with the War Department — noting the importance to the welfare of the United States of “an office for promoting and perserving perpetual peace in our country.
Benjamin Banneker’s legacy of contributions to America and the world continues to benefit society, even in terms of modern day inventions as he was the creator of what is popularly called the “Reverse Mortgage.” Upon his return home from working as Chartist, Surveyor and Designer of the nation’s capital, at or around age 60, Banneker wanted to free up his time from having to farm to eke out living. In response to this need, he devised a formula for a Living Trust type stipend arrangement with his friends, and colleagues, the Ellicott’s.
In his propositon to them, he offered his homestead estate as collateral, based on a mortuary table he devised which projected how long he was likely to live, taking into account the value of his estate, and proposed that he receive a monthly allowance for life from them in exchange for their taking sole and/or partial ownership of his property upon his death. He struck a contractual agreement with them based on these terms. Today, this type of legal agreement is called a “Reverse Mortgage.” This instrument has saved many elderly home owners from losing their homes and/or allowed them to improve the quality of their lives during their senior years.
The legacy of Banneker’s genius and ingenuity continues to positively impact the quality of life for us all. As our commissioned poem by Poet, Ty Gray-El states, “We Owe Banneker.”