Benjamin Banneker: The Math Wizard of the 18th Century
Benjamin Banneker was a man ahead of his time. Born in Maryland in 1731 to free parents, he was an American astronomer, mathematician, surveyor and so much more. Despite facing significant obstacles due to his race and lack of formal education, Banneker made significant contributions to science and society during his lifetime.
In 1752, Banneker garnered public acclaim by building a clock entirely out of wood. The clock, believed to be the first built in America, kept precise time for decades. In 1789, Banneker began making astronomical calculations that enabled him to successfully forecast a solar eclipse.
Another of his most recognized accomplishments was his creation of a series of almanacs, which he published annually from 1792 to 1797. They included astronomical calculations, weather predictions, and agricultural advice.
Banneker was also a skilled surveyor. He assisted in the survey of the boundaries of Washington, D.C. and helped lay out the streets of the city.
Despite facing significant racism and discrimination throughout his life, Banneker never let it defeat him. He was a determined and persistent individual who was committed to using his talents and abilities to help others.
Banneker's contributions to science, math and society were not fully recognized during his lifetime, but his legacy lives on today. He is remembered as a pioneering mathematician and scientist and as a symbol of the potential of all people to achieve great things, regardless of their background or circumstances.
On October 9, 1806, after his usual morning walk, Banneker died in his sleep, just a month short of his 75th birthday.
Let's Make a Sundial!
- A flat plate or tray (such as a plastic lid or shallow box)
- A pencil or marker
- A small object (such as a small toy or rock) to use as the gnomon (the part of the sundial that casts the shadow)
- Pirate Scientist Observation Journal
- A Sunny Day ☀️
What can you spy with your mathematical eye? Who’s ready for math fun in the sun? Let’s go!
- On the flat plate or tray, use the pencil or marker to draw a large circle.
- In the center of the circle, draw a smaller circle.
- Place the small object (gnomon) in the center of the smaller circle, standing upright.
- Take the sundial outside on a sunny day and place it on a flat surface (such as a sidewalk or patio).
- Observe the shadow cast by the gnomon on the plate. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadow will move across the plate, marking the time of day.
- Optional: Grab your Arrrgh Mighty Observation Journal and describe or draw what you see.
Explain to the children that Benjamin Banneker was an African-American astronomer and mathematician who built a wooden clock that kept accurate time for more than 50 years without any adjustments. He also used his knowledge of astronomy to make accurate predictions about solar eclipses, which is similar to how a sundial uses the sun to tell time.