All Episodes

June 10, 2013 23 mins

Despite having almost no official schooling and being a man of color in Colonial America, Benjamin Banneker turned out to be such an accomplished scholar that schools and professorships are named after him today.

Learn more about your ad-choices at

See for privacy information.

Mark as Played

Episode Transcript

Available transcripts are automatically generated. Complete accuracy is not guaranteed.
Speaker 1 (00:01):
Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from how
Stuff Works dot com. Hello, and welcome to the podcast.
I'm Tracy B. Wilson and I'm Holly Frying, and today
we're going to talk about a particularly amazing person in
American history, and that is Benjamin Bannaker. Yes, who is

someone I have not known very much about before we
started this little project. I had not. I had not either,
and I learned a whole lot of fascinating stuff. There's
really a lot that was particularly amazing about his life.
He had almost no official schooling, but he turned out
to be such a scholar that today there are schools
and professorships, um and educational foundations and things like that

named after him. He and his family made up a
really small handful of the about two hundred free African
Americans who were living in Maryland at the time where
they were at that point of about four thousand slaves
and thirteen thousand white people. And he lived at an
age when African Americans were really considered to be inferior

to white people and incapable of scholarly thought. But he managed,
in spite of that existing perception to publish a series
of really well respected Almanacs, and he was appointed by
George Washington to help survey the land that would eventually
become Washington, d c. Which is really cool. Yeah, And
it all started when he was born on November nine,

in seventeen thirty one in Maryland. He has a pretty
interesting family history. His maternal grandmother was an englishwoman named
Molly Walsh or Welsh, it differs depending on whose account
you're looking at. She had been falsely convicted of stealing milk.
The bucket had really been kicked over by a cow.
But she was sent to Maryland as an indentured servant,

and once she had completed her indenture, she borrowed some
money to rent a farm or rent some land to
start a farm, and she two slaves. One of the
slaves was known as Bannocky, whose name had originally been
Banna as one word and ca the second word, and
who had been a chief or a king before being enslaved.

And once she had paid off all her debts, Molly
actually freed both the slaves in s and she married Bannacky.
This marriage was illegal in Maryland. So this was a
lot of really astounding events happening around the beginning of
his family or just completely unusual for the time. One
of Molly and Bannakey's children was a daughter named Mary,

and Mary eventually when she grew up, purchased her own slave,
who had been named Robert when he was baptized. He
was from the region of Africa that was known at
the time as Guinea, and that most likely was somewhere
in the stretch of Africa that spans uh west to
east from Ghana to Nigeria. Um Like her mother, Molly

later freed and married Robert, and when she did, he
took her last name, So it's a little bit unclear
how exactly the last name morphed into Bannaker. But Mary
and Robert had four children, Benjamin and then his three
younger sisters, and at some point they were all going
by the name Bannaker and not Bannicky anymore. Benjamin's parents

bought a small tobacco farm next to Molly and Bannacky's farm.
The farm was registered to both Benjamin and his father.
Molly taught Benjamin to read using the Bible, and he
actually went to an interracial Quaker school for boys for
a little while when he was young, but he didn't
get much formal education. As Tracey mentioned at the top

of the podcast, the school was only open in the winters,
and so it wasn't like a regular, full time, year
round school, and it really was only available for lessons
when the boys weren't needed to help their families on
the farms. So even though he really had not much
formal education at all, he had a very avid interest
in learning, and he was especially interested in math and mechanics,

and so he wound up teaching himself. Almost his whole
education was self taught, and in addition to the mechanical
and mathematic things that he really delved into, he also
studied the stars and taught himself astronomy. And he also
learned to play the flute and the violin, which kind
of blows my mind, because picking up a musical instrument
and learning how to play it is quite a feat

in itself, even if you have lessons well, and picking
up things like complex mathematics and the kinds of calculations
that are required for astronomy without really having someone to
help you along is also pretty astounding. When he was fifteen,
Benjamin took over the family farm, and one of the
things that he did was he designed and built an

irrigation system to divert water from a spring that was
nearby to their crops, so he was able to keep
the crops alive even when there were droughts going on.
And he also used corop rotation techniques that weren't really
in common practice at the time. And as an adult,
Benjamin generally wore Quaker style clothing, so he stuck pretty
much too simple dark jackets and white shirts. Uh. And

although he had some affinity for the Quakers, he never
actually joined. He just kind of emulated them in his style.
Here's a description of him from an eighteen fifty four
sketch of his life. Bannaker, whilst in the vigor of manhood,
was an industrious and thriving farmer. He kept his grounds
in good order, had horses, cows, and many hives of bees,

cultivated a good garden, and lived comfortably during the winter
months and at other seasons of leisure. His active mind
was employed in improving the knowledge he had gained at school.
He thus became acquainted with the most difficult portions of arithmetic.
He also read all the books on general literature that
he could borrow and occasionally diverted his mind with an

ingenious effort in mechanics. That's kind of like a It's
so quaint you would think it was out of fiction.
I didn't know it was an actual humans, the real person. Yeah. Uh.
So when he was twenty two, he actually made a clock.
He had seen a pocket watch belonging to a friend.
We're not sure on the pronunciation of the last name,

it could be Joseph Levy or Levi uh. But Benjamin
had been completely fascinated with this watch, and so Joseph
actually let him take it apart, and so Benjamin sketched
out all the components and put the watch back together
in working order, and then used that experiential learning to
make a clock from scratch. So today this probably doesn't
sound like a giant deal because clocks are ubiquitous, But

at the time, nearly all of the clocks in the
United States were imported from England. There wasn't really anyone
in the US who was making clocks, and Benjamin's clock
was made entirely out of wood, apart from an iron
bell that he got that was struck hourly. And this
clock ran for more than forty years, keeping good time.
That entire time until the day that Benjamin was buried

after his death when his home in all of its contents,
burned in a fire. So, based on the the watch
he had seen and taken apart one time, he made
a working wooden clock that kept time for forty years. Yes, uh,
like you said, it seems simple because clocks are everywhere.
But if anyone has ever taken apart a watch, even

to replace a battery, and you lose one spring like,
forget it, it's over. You have to go to an
expert at that point. Right. So the idea that he
just took one apart, put it back together and went,
oh I get it. Yes, I can make one, went
forward making its own. It's really pretty impressive. So this
clock is cited as the first striking clock built in
the United States. Uh. And he used this experience to

sort of start up a little side business repairing people's
watches and clocks. People who came to the area would
stop by just to see the clock and to talk
to Benjamin, who by this point had developed a reputation
for being extremely intelligent but also modest and gentlemanly. He
became familiar with the Ellicott's family from Pennsylvania who had

built a mill and established the town not very far
from Benjamin's farm, and Benjamin had been a frequent visitor
while the mill was being built because he liked to
observe all the mechanics and machinery involved in the process,
and he and the Elicotts became friends, and eventually George
Ellicott loan Benjamin all manner of books in math and astronomy,
and so he now had a whole new assortment of

resources to expand his knowledge and education. Later he used
these books, along with some tools that George loaned to him,
to predict to predict the April fourteenth, seventeen eighty nine
solar eclipse almost accurately. This is another thing that maybe
doesn't sound like a crazy accomplishment today because we know

when all the eclipses are happening and we can watch
them on the internet. Um, but most of the people
who were predicting an eclipse at that point would they
were predicting that one wrong. And and the almost in
his own calculations came from an error in one of
the textbooks, not from his own calculations. So he turned
out even though he wasn't right on the money with it,

his prediction was more accurate than a lot of the
more well known astronomers had made at the time. Reportedly,
he also had theorized that serious was actually two stars
instead of one, which it is, but at the time
it was believed to be just one heavenly body. In
seventeen ninety, George Washington appointed Benjamin to the team that

was going to survey the federal territory which would later
become Washington, d C. And Major Andrew Ellicott was also
on the team. In writing about this, Georgetown Weekly Ledger said,
quote Ellicott was attended by Benjamin Bannaker, an Ethiopian whose
abilities as a surveyor and an astronomer clearly proved that Mr.

Jefferson's concluding that race of men were void of mental
endowments was without foundation. That Mr Jefferson Jefferson, of course
being Thomas Jefferson. Yes, so he actually became quite an
ambassador for the non Caucasians that we're living in America
at the time. We'll talk about that more and just
a little bit, but we'll talk for a moment about

the survey work. First. There's a story that when Pierre
Lamphont left the Washington d C Project, he took all
the plans with him and then Benjamin recreated them from memory.
So modern historians think that this is probably an embellishment.
There aren't any documents at the time that confirm it.
It seems to have arisen a little bit later. Um

So while it's probably an apocryphal story, it speaks to
the reputation that he had developed for himself at this point.
And when Benjamin's parents passed away, they left him the
family farm, so he built himself a cabin there where
he could work, and he also had a study and
it had a skylight so he could continue to study

the stars. And when he was about sixty, Benjamin worked
out a deal with the Ellicott's for them to take
possession of his farm where he continued to live, in
exchange for a pension that he could live on so
that he could spend more time studying and writing. And
it was an arrangement very similar to today's reverse mortgages,
and sometimes it's actually referred to as the first reverse

mortgage in history, where he's kind of pre selling the
land that he's still living on because as we've talked
about in other podcasts. Sustaining yourself on a farm is
pretty much a full time, constant job, and he wanted
to have time to study and write. So he worked
out this deal where you know, they would get all
of his land upon his death. He could continue to
live there, but they would pay him some money every month.

He used some actuarial tables to do this. It turned
out he lived a little longer than expected, but it
was okay. They continued. They continued to pay him throughout
for six years. From seventeen seventeen ninety seven, Benjamin published
almanacs which were known as the Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and
Virginia Almanac and Ephemerous. He was the first African American

to publish an almanac, and those almanacs started out as
celestial tables and charts of planetary movements, and as with
other almanacs at the time, they mixed a lot of
different information into one book, including Benjamin's astronomy work, tied information,
medical knowledge, etcetera. And they also included a lot of essays, poems,

and literature, so they weren't just books of straight up facts.
They served uh an abolitionist purpose as well, since they
contained a collection of anti slavery speeches and essays, so
again going back to him being an ambassador for his people.
In the end, he published six of these almanacs and
twenty eight editions, and they received a lot of high

praise for being a very good quality, but they were
eventually discontinued due to low sales. And he had created
all of the ephemeris, which are star chart uh pieces,
as well as other astronomical work, all the way through
eighteen o four, but these later years weren't published. And
in addition to all of that writing, he also did
some work about seventeen year locusts and bees, which is

pertinent today since we're there's much talk in the news
about the seventeen year locust psyche. I know that was
an accident. I was delighted when I stumbled across the
across the locust thing and went, well, this is going
to turn out to be particularly relevant because of locusts.
So a lot of his fame has to do with
his self taught education and his work as a scientist,
but he was also an abolitionist and an activist for peace.

His first almanac also recommended that the US government have
a Department of Peace, which finally happened about two hundred
years later when the founding of the US with the
founding of the U s Institutes of Peace. And Benjamin
also actively spoke and wrote about abolition before the US
really even had a strong abolitionist movement. He was a
complete for runner. Yeah In in seventee, he wrote to

Thomas Jefferson, who was at the time the Secretary of State,
about slavery. He enclosed this letter with a handwritten copy
of his not yet published almanac for that year. And
this was in part response to Jefferson's Notes on the
State of Virginia, in which Jefferson wrote at length about
what he considered to be the inferiority of blacks. And

in this letter he described who he was, and he
tried to appeal to Jefferson's better nature, and he wanted
to point out the inconsistency in the Founding Father's talk
about everyone being equal while still owning slaves and describing
blacks's inferior And he wrote about the young colonies attempting
to free themselves from the British crown and how the

government should be able to empathize with slaves having had
their own struggles for freedom. And he pointed out the
irony in the quote, we hold these truths to be
self evident, that all men are created equal, that they
are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and
that among these are life liberty in the pursuit of happiness.
That's verily quite moving to me. Yeah, and he was

very articulate. Here's a selection from near the end of
the letter. I suppose that your knowledge of the situation
of my brethren is too extensive to need to recite
know here. Neither shall I presume to prescribe methods by
which they may be relieved, otherwise than by recommending to
you and all others to wean yourself from these narrow
prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to them. And

as Job proposed to his friends, put your soul in
their souls stead. Thus shall your hearts be enlarged with
kindness and benevolence towards them. And just shall you need
neither the direction of myself for others in what manner
to proceed here in And so he's pretty much saying,
you can put yourself in our shoes. Use a little empathy.

You might look at this differently. He's pretty much I'm
not going to tell you that, but specifics of how
to do it. He's sort of just a simple step
of showing some empathy. And then he turns to a
rather more practical uh statement, because he says, and now, sir,
although my sympathy and affection for my brethren hath caused
my enlargement thus far, I ardently hope that your canned

and generosity will plead with you in my behalf. Then
I make known to you that it was not originally
my design, but having taken up my pen in order
to direct to you as a present a copy of
an almanac which I have calculated for the succeeding year,
I was unexpectedly and unavoidably lad there too, So I
had just meant to write you a note with my almanac.

But once I had a pen in my hand, once
I got going, I need to tell you the rest
of this too, And Jefferson replied to him. He responded
in less than two weeks, which at that time is
pretty quick turnaround, and the letter, which is dated August, says,
I thank you sincerely for your letter of the nineteenth
incitant and for the almanac it contained. 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 the want of them is owing merely to
the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America.
I can add with truth that nobody wishes more ardently
to see a good system commenced for raising the condition

both of their body and mind to what it ought
to be. As far as the imbecility of their present existence,
and other circumstances which cannot be neglected will admit. Uh.
And then he goes on to say, I have taken
the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur Condozette, Secretary
of the Academy of Sciences at Paris and member of
the Philanthropic Thropic Society, because I considered it as a

document to which your whole color had a right for
their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them.
I am with great esteem, sir, your most obedient, humble servants,
just really quite lovely. Yeah, it's simultaneously a lovely and
flattering letter without really acknowledging a lot of what was

pointed out to him in the first place, which continues
to be your running theme in in the subject of
Thomas Jefferson and slavery and race UM. And then Benjamin
put this whole correspondence in his almanac and you can
read it all on line. We will link to it
in the show notes. I wonder what Jefferson thought of that, Like,
I didn't mean that for everybody. I just don't know well.

And I know that there have been passed in the archive.
There are other episodes about Thomas Jefferson. And there has
been so much work at length about the subject of
Thomas Jefferson and race, like a whole giant field of discussion.
That there are people that spend their entire scholarly lives
studying nothing else, yes, but his relationship to racial issues.

So after his almanacs ceased to publish, and after his
work in Washington, d c. Was finished, Benjamin spent a
lot of his later life with study and writing UM.
After he had an illness in his later years, he
made arrangements for how he wanted all of his work
to be taken care of after his death, but unfortunately
much of it was destroyed when his house burned and

Benjamin Bannaker died approximately on October eighteen o six. I
know that we said at the top of the podcast.
Today there are schools and professorships and foundations named after him,
and he was put on a commemorative stamp in nineteen eighty.
So even though in the world of UH African American scientists,

in the world of early four runners of abolitionist movement
in America, he's maybe not one of the most prominent names,
he definitely had a legacy and and did some just
really amazing work, especially considering that he had almost no
formal education. Well, and he was so ahead of his
time on most yeah, I mean scientifically, mathematically abolition He

was like many steps ahead of the rest of the
people around him. Yes, it was quite be why he's
not always associated with those things. He's kind of too
early to play an obvious part in the bigger stage
and things really heated up. Yeah, I am quite fond
of him now, I'd love his story. Knew very little

about him before I started researching, and uh, of course
I'm always fond of scientists who like to study things
like stars and bees. Who wouldn't do you have some
listener mail for us? Indeed I do. This is a
listener correction mail because I made an error. So this

is from Ricky. Ricky is writing about a prior listener
mail that came at the end of our episode about
the cannibalism in Jamestown. Um and So, Rickie says, I
have just listened to your episode about Jamestown and I
wanted to respond to the listener mail you played at
the end of the podcast. We were talking about Emily.
So in the movie Emily and the character who has

brittle bones or thinks he does, you mentioned that you
always thought this character had a disease called FOP, which
causes brittle bones. I just wanted to let you know
that you have your diseases mixed up. Osteo genesis imperfecta
or oh I causes brittle bones, whereas fiber displaysia asific
him perceiva or FOP causes muscles to turn into boom.
I just happened to have friends with both conditions, as

I have a rare disability myself and us oddballs tend
to stick together. So, first of all, thank you, so much, Ricky.
And secondly, I apologize, I totally add my acronyms and
mixed up in my head. Well, and those happened, they do,
and those are two We have articles on both of
those conditions on the website and they were written by

the same writer near the same time, and that is
how assigned to those yeah, so that they sort of
became one massive neurological, muscular skeletal thing all in my head.
So I apologize for that error, and thank you Ricky
for writing. If you want to read about either of

those two diseases, you can at our website. You can
also talk to us in a lot of other ways.
You can email us if you would like. We are
at History Podcasts at Discovery dot com. We're also on
Facebook at facebook dot com slash history class Stuff, and
on Twitter at Mission History. You can find our tumbler
at misson History dot tumbler dot com, and we are

also on Pinterest. If you would like to learn more
about this subject or things related to it, you can
come to our website put the word math in the
search bar. You will find how math works, and you
can do all of that in a whole lot more
at our site, which is how stuff Works dot com

for more on this and thousands of other topics. Because
it has stuff works dot com, Netflix streams TV shows
and movies directly to your home, saving you time, money,
and hassle. As a Netflix member, you can instantly watch

TV episodes and movies streaming directly to your PC, Mac,
or right to your TV with your Xbox three, xty
p S three or Nintendo we console, plus Apple devices,
Kindle and Nook. Get a free thirty day trial membership.
Go to www dot Netflix dot com and sign up now.

Stuff You Missed in History Class News

Advertise With Us

Follow Us On

Hosts And Creators

Tracy V. Wilson

Tracy V. Wilson

Holly Frey

Holly Frey

Show Links


Popular Podcasts

Stuff You Should Know

Stuff You Should Know

If you've ever wanted to know about champagne, satanism, the Stonewall Uprising, chaos theory, LSD, El Nino, true crime and Rosa Parks, then look no further. Josh and Chuck have you covered.

The Nikki Glaser Podcast

The Nikki Glaser Podcast

Every week comedian and infamous roaster Nikki Glaser provides a fun, fast-paced, and brutally honest look into current pop-culture and her own personal life.

Music, radio and podcasts, all free. Listen online or download the iHeart App.


© 2024 iHeartMedia, Inc.