Celebrating the contributions of Black mathematicians

Friday, February 25, 2022

Black mathematicians

Mathematics has historically been a multicultural project. It is a constantly evolving discipline that requires a diverse set of viewpoints and outlooks to grow.

As part of Black History Month, the Faculty of Mathematics honours the Black mathematicians whose contributions played significant roles and helped take math to new heights. Benjamin Banneker, Dudley Woodard, Katherine Johnson and Dr. Gladys West were revolutionary Black mathematicians whose work we celebrate.

At the age of 24, Benjamin Banneker developed the first wooden clock to be made entirely in America. His creation helped keep time in an era when clocks were not as readily available as today. Along with his work on time, he also set his sights on space and predicted the solar eclipse of April 1789. He produced almanacs about the positioning of celestial bodies, and the calculations in his almanacs would help to determine the position of astronomical objects throughout the year. 

Dudley Woodard published three papers in his lifetime, with his second, “The Characterization of the Closed N-Cell,”recognized as the first mathematical paper by a Black person in a top-class mathematics journal in the United States. In 1929, Woodard helped to create and establish a mathematics graduate program at Howard University. His research broke new ground in mathematics and helped push the discipline forward while opening the door for more diversity in math.  

In 1962, Katherine Johnson provided the orbital entry and launch window calculations that enabled John Glenn to orbit the moon. In fact, the movie “Hidden Figures” is dedicated to her revolutionary work for NASA to make this space flight a success. She also provided the calculations that coordinated the Apollo moon landing. Before technology advancements and the rise of high-powered computers, her work played a crucial role to make space exploration possible. 

Gladys West was hired by the naval base in Dahlgren, Virginia where she worked on programming and coding huge machines. She worked to help lay the groundwork for the invention of the Global Positioning System (GPS). She also programmed the Naval ordinance Research Calculator to help determine the movements of Pluto in relation to Neptune. Her work in programming helped pave the way for further development of GPS to prove the regularity of the motion of Pluto in relation to Neptune. 

This is but a small sample of some of the contributions that Black Mathematicians have made to the advancement of math and science. Black students, scholars and researchers continue to play a critical role in discovering new ways to harness the power of mathematics and push the boundaries of what is possible. Check out the UWaterloo Black History Month Website to learn about Black History Month and read more inspirational stories.