Benjamin Banneker: America’s Greatest Intellectual Scientist


Despite a history of being shut out of professional occupations and confined to working in industries deemed acceptable for them, such as domestic services, some manual trades, and agriculture there was no total loss of black ingenuity and technological innovation. African Americans made and continue to make significant contributions to science and humanity.
To be sure, few Americans are aware of the major contributions of African Americans to modern technology. In 1913 alone, Van Sertima asserts, “as many as on thousand inventions were patented by African Americans, and those were the fortunate few who got as far as the patent office. In the 19th century, several African Americans invented labor-saving devices but were not allowed to patent them in their own names.” From the Colonial Period until the present, African Americans have put their mark on science.

Still, the scientific and technological contributions of African American are too often presented outside of the history of America and external to the American science and technology. Further, the oppressive, racist, and self-limiting context and conditions which these men and women had to endure is rarely if ever mentioned. Their brilliant, groundbreaking discoveries, techniques, and inventions are a testimony to the human will and imagination, and are representative of what Constance Rourke had in mind when she referred to “emblems for a pioneer people who required resilience as a prime trait.”
Clearly, the period of Colonial America was the most socially and politically constrained for African Americans. It was during this period that the ideology of racism and white supremacy became institutionalized and a fundamental part of the American psyche. Famed and multi-talented scientist Benjamin Banneker articulated the conditions and challenges black faced in a letter he wrote to Thomas Jefferson quoting language in the Declaration and expressing a plea for justice for African Americans. 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. ”

Banneker’s inventions and discoveries is an unappreciated and hidden part of the intellectual grounding that would eventually give rise to America’s scientific revolution. Put another way, Benjamin Banneker deserved the same adulation and recognition as that of his closest rival
In 1793 Banneker’s wrote in his almanac “A Plan of Peace-office for the United States. The Plan proposed the appointment of a “Secretary of Peace” and described the Secretary’s powers and prefiguring twentieth century diplomatic discussions about “world peace” and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beloved community. 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.

Banneker Scientific Achievement

Benjamin Banneker, considered the first African American scientist, was an intellectual who studied various fields. He first gained attention by making a watch made of wood which kept time for more than 40 years. His intellectual pursuits led him to study astronomy where he correctly predicted a solar eclipse in 1789. From 1791 to 1802 he published the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanac and Ephemeris, which contained tide tables, future eclipses, and medicinal formulas. Besides this he published the first scientific book by an African American. Banneker is perhaps best known for reproducing from memory the plans for the federal capital city (the City of Washington), which would be located in a relatively small area. Banneker demonstrated the complete intellectual and scientist, not separating his scientific pursuits from the struggle of American freedom and the concern for the human condition.
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