Benjamin Banneker was one of early America's authentic geniuses. In 1761, for example, his extraordinary mechanical inventiveness enabled him to build what was probably the first clock made in America -- a wooden "striking" clock so accurate that it kept perfect time for more than 20 years.
Banneker's skill at mathematics and astronomy also allowed him to predict the solar eclipse of 1789 and play an important part in the six-man surveying team that laid out the blueprint for the District of Columbia. When the team leader, Maj. Pierre L'Enfant, abruptly resigned and returned to France with the plans for the young nation's capital, Banneker's precise memory enabled him to reproduce the plans in their entirety.
Benjamin Banneker's accomplishments were all the more remarkable in that he was a black man during an era when slavery was virtually universal in the South. He was born near what is now Ellicott City, of a free mother and a slave father who eventually was able to buy his own freedom. Thus Banneker was considered free and was allowed to attend an integrated Quaker school, where he received the equivalent of an eighth-grade education.