Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Geek

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Image from the Library of Congress.Image from the Library of Congress.

Image from the Library of Congress.

As Black History Month enters its final weekend, I thought it might be interesting to bring up the subject of Benjamin Banneker. While there is some controversy about Banneker’s place in history, it seems not unreasonable to say that he was quite probably not only the first African-American geek, but also one of the first American geeks of any sort.

Banneker was born free in Maryland in November of 1731 — three months before George Washington’s birth. It’s not known precisely where he got his knowledge of mathematics and astronomy — some historians speculate that his maternal grandfather was a member of the Dogon tribe from Mali, who are reputed to have a long tradition of studying astronomy. Wherever he learned it, though, it certainly piqued his interest, and that, combined with some schooling from a local Quaker farmer, gave him a solid grounding for geeky pursuits.

Benjamin BannekerBenjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker

His first known major geeky activity was when he at age 21 reportedly built a clock out of wood using a borrowed pocket watch as his only guide. The story (for which evidence is scant, but it seems likely there is some truth to it) goes that the clock kept working until after Banneker’s death. Banneker’s clock is sometimes referred to as “America’s first clock,” but that is likely an overstatement of its historical importance.

Banneker became an avid astronomer, and used his observations and calculations to assist a survey team working to draw up the boundaries of what would become Washington, D.C. By that time he was getting on in years, so after only a short while surveying he returned home and instead turned his astronomical data into a series of almanacs.

In 1791, he wrote a letter to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, pleading for justice for African-Americans. He argued the then-radical idea that African-Americans such as himself were just as capable and smart as white people, and as supporting evidence included an ephemeris he had constructed. Jefferson replied, agreeing in principle with Banneker’s arguments, but he would later, after Banneker’s 1806 death, write that he did not think much of Banneker’s abilities.

I encourage you to read more about Benjamin Banneker. He never married, and there is no indication he had any children, so we can’t claim him as a geek dad. But I think it’s fair to say he was a geek, at a time when that was surely rare for any person with his skin color in America.

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