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Feb 17, 2007

The Self-Taught Scientist Who Surveyed a Capitol

Yesterday's Times Herald-Record has a brief profile of one of the most fascinating scientific figures of early American history, Benjamin Banneker. Born in 1731, the free son of a slave, Mr. Banneker was a self-taught clock maker, astronomer, and surveyor, as well as a best-selling author. Those may seem like odd combinations today. However, in colonial times, clock makers frequently crafted a wide range of scientific instruments. He surveyed what became Washington, D.C.

While the credit for the design of Washington D.C. usually goes to Maj. Andrew Endicott and French architect Pierre L'Enfant, it was Mr. Banneker who did most of the actual work. When Mr. L'Enfant became angry with his superiors and abandoned the project, taking the only set of design plans with him, President George Washington proposed hiring a new architect. Instead, Mr. Banneker created an entire new set of plans, from memory, saving the young U.S. Government untold amounts of time and money.

Mr. Banneker's scientific expertise was so well known in the newly formed states that his "Benjamin Banneker's Almanac," was a best-seller from 1792 to 1797.
The best work on Banneker is by Silvio A. Bedini, who was a curator a the Smithsonian:

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