Today, we meet the black Poor Richard. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Almanacs became popular when
printing was invented. The first printed almanac
came out right after the Gutenberg Bible. But
almanacs had been around since antiquity.
Almanacs did many things. They predicted the
weather and the heavens. They were fancy calendars
with all the saints' and feast days. They gave bits
of common wisdom, pictures, and stories, all
decorated with phases of the moon. They were
magazines to teach and entertain, all year round.
Ben Franklin's older brother put out an almanac in
the early 1700s. When Ben wrote his own almanac, he
had to use a pen name. And so Poor Richard's
Almanac became the most famous of them all.
After the American Revolution another almanacker
appeared. He was Benjamin Banneker, a free black
farmer. He'd had some schooling. He'd taken a
liking to math and science. But his real education
began late in life. When he was 57 a Quaker
mill-owner spotted his rare mental talents. He fed
Banneker books on math, surveying, and astronomy.
Banneker was 60 when his almanac came out. By then
he had the attention of the founding fathers. He'd
already served on Washington's commission to lay
out the new capital. The Georgetown paper wrote
about that. They called him, "an Ethiopian whose
abilities [disprove] Mr. Jefferson's [claim that
his race is] void of mental endowment."
Jefferson had always sent mixed messages on race
and slavery. When he got a copy of Banneker's
almanac, he recommended it to the Paris Academy. To
Banneker, he naively wrote that the work should
allay people's doubts about Africans.
Banneker was a close friend of Benjamin
Rush. Rush was a Colonial doctor and writer
who'd helped bankroll the Revolution. He'd written
against slavery, the death penalty, and alcohol. He
was a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
A new round of European wars worried Rush and
Banneker. They didn't think war solved anything.
Banneker used his almanac to support Rush's plan
for a new cabinet post. They wanted a secretary of
peace. If we wanted to live in peace, they
reasoned, then we had to work at it.
And so we do! I suppose Banneker saw that war is
freedom's enemy. And he'd learned something about
freedom late in life -- something we all should
know. It was that the true gateway to freedom
passes through the full use of our unique,
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds