Black inventors: Part One


THE myth that portrays blacks as a people who lack intellect and are uncivilised has been upheld in the West and successfully sold on the African continent.
Sadly, the lie has gained currency internationally.
This, obviously, flies in the face of history which confirms that most of the great civilisations of the past were by black people.
The 450 years of slavery which were followed by 100 years of colonisation engendered chronic inferiority complex and an identity crisis among the black people which has become the single most important reason accounting for Africa’s poverty and lack of development.
Through the white man’s demonisation, blacks have, subconsciously, come to hate themselves and their brethren and tend to idolise the white man.
The truth, however, is that intellectually blacks are not lacking in anyway.
It is Western induced poor conditions of African existence that sustain the white myth of black inferiority.
The USA is a multiracial nation which has, from slavery, put the black man at the very bottom of racial hierarchy while the white people occupy the very top.
There is constant pressure on the black people of America to prove that they are not inferior to the whiteman.
As such most black inventors have come from the United States.
However, because most black Americans still use their grandfathers’ slave names, after a while it is generally difficult to know if the inventor was black or white.
This series highlights some of the black inventors in the USA, many of whom received no formal schooling.
Their achievements are attributed to natural intelligence and personal inspiration. One of the most notable among these black intellectuals was Benjamin Banneker. Benjamin was born to African-American parents who were both free.
He was born a free Negro because his mother was not a slave and his father had been freed from slavery.
At the age of 22 Benjamin completed a wooden clock that would strike and make a noise by the hour every hour.
He made this clock by carving each piece to the scale of a borrowed pocket watch. Benjamin’s invention persuaded a significant white population to dump the myth that says blacks are intellectually inferior to whites.
More importantly, the famous ‘Big Ben’ of England was built on Benjamin Banneker’s prototype, hence its name.
Benjamin was born in 1731 in Baltimore when slavery was at its peak.
He received minimal formal education and was basically self-educated.
However, he knew about astronomy and scientists now believe that he may have acquired this knowledge through his father who may have belonged to the Dogon people of West Africa.
The Dogon people are said to have had knowledge of astronomy for centuries before and had been aware of the existence of planets long before the invention of the telescope.
In 1788 Benjamin was given books by a white man called George Ellicott who had been impressed by Benjamin’s intellect.
George and Benjamin were neighbors and had worked together in building and using mills.
Seeing that Benjamin was naturally gifted in astronomy, George facilitated Benjamin with literature to conduct a more formal study of astronomy.
Within a year, Benjamin sent George his work in essay form, calculating a solar eclipse.
Another member of the Ellicott family called Andrew also recognised Benjamin’s intelligence and hired him to assist in the initial survey of the new federal district. Andrew was a Mayor and this project that Benjamin was participating in entailed planning out and marking the territory which would become the District of Colombia (DC), the administrative capital of the USA.
The original area was a square measuring 16km on each side.
Benjamin worked on making astronomical observations to determine the starting point of the district among other things.
Benjamin also used a clock that related points on the ground to the positions of stars at specific points.
Although he resigned from the survey work prematurely due to illness in 1791, the work he did was mind blowing, considering that he was not formally educated.
Benjamin was also praised for the written work that he published.
He wrote works on astronomy that are known as almanacs.
In these almanacs, Benjamin calculated solar and lunar eclipses.
He also wrote about the motion of stars, planets, the sun, the moon, the weather, seasonal festivals and remarkable days.
The almanacs also included works on mathematics and also puzzles.
These essays dazzled the whites of both USA and Europe as his books achieved commercial success and were exported overseas.
Benjamin received much support from the Ellicott family which unlike most whites of that time, believed in racial equality, especially after knowing the likes of Benjamin who possessed great intellect.
Part of the preface of an almanac by Ben published in 1796 reads, “Not you the proud, impute to these the blame, if Africa’s sons to genius (intelligence) are unknown.
“For Banneker has proved they may acquire a name, as bright and lasting as your own.”
Although the language in the quote is difficult to understand, it appeals to white people to abandon their prejudices against black people.
Meanwhile, a prominent white abolitionist called William Wilberforce and his colleagues praised Benjamin’s works in the House of Commons in Britain.
Ben also wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the American President, complaining about the treatment of blacks and urging the government to act against the degradation of blacks.
He also sent Jefferson his almanacs and other works that led Jefferson to write back to Banneker with the following praises.
“Nobody wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of other colors of men, and that the appearance of a want (lack) of talent in them is owing merely to degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and in America.”
Another letter by Thomas Jefferson read, “I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the USA, a Negro, the son of a black man from Africa, and of a black woman from the USA, who is a very respectable Mathematician.
“I employed him under one of our chief directors in laying the new federal city on the Potomac.
“In the intervals of his leisure (during his spare time), while on that work, he made an almanac of the next year which he sent to me in his own writing.
“I have seen very elegant solutions to geometrical problems by him.”
Benjamin Banneker was indeed an inventor and an outstanding black American who helped to build a positive image of black people everywhere.


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