Thomas Jefferson Science

Create a DIY cipher wheel to celebrate Presidential science

800px-ThomasJeffersonStateRoomPortrait Thomas Jefferson and the plow
Jefferson's_disk_cipher thomas jefferson science and inventor

Thomas Jefferson

3rd President of the United States

2nd Vice President of the United States
1st Secretary of State for the United States

Born: April 13th 1743
Died: July 4th 1826 (83 years old)

Contributions to science:

“Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight” – Thomas Jefferson, 1809

Thomas Jefferson learned about paleontology, archeology, and agriculture. Thomas Jefferson was a notable inventor and engineer, making improvements to the plow, inventing the Jefferson disk cipher, designing a swivel chair, and modifying the polygraph.

Science projects to celebrate Thomas Jefferson

We have two fun science and engineering projects for you to enjoy as you learn about the life and times of Thomas Jefferson: engineer a miniature plow to plant garden seeds and create a cipher to write a secret message.

Create a Jefferson Cipher Wheel

A cipher wheel is a secret or disguised method of communicating – kids can think of it as a way to write secret messages. Ciphers can take all different forms, but one thing is for sure: If you want to communicate secretly your cipher tools have to be secure.

When Jefferson was alive almost all communications were hand carried. It would be easy for a messenger to open and read a confidential letter regarding Revolutionary war troop movement. To get around this Thomas Jefferson invented a cipher wheel.

Jefferson’s wheel cipher tool had 36 disks on it, allowing each message to contain 36 jibberish characters that could transform into a message such as RETREAT NOW since the wheels could be ordered in any way desired, and the letters on each wheel contained the whole alphabet. The number of combinations in just the ordering of those 36 wheels was mind-boggling, starting with a 3 followed by 41 zeroes! Add in that each wheel had 26 options and you are far beyond a cipher that is easy to crack. In this project, we will create a DIY cipher tool with just 8 wheels.

Jefferson cipher wheel setup
DIY how to make a cipher wheel

How to make a secret message cipher wheel like Jefferson.

To send and receive secret messages you will need to make at least 2 ciphers or one cipher for each end of communications. 

Print and cut out the alphabet cipher strips. Each strip also has a number. When you make your cipher tool you need the wheel numbers to be in the same order, so if you tape your strips on one TP tube as 3, 5, 7, 1, 4, 2, 6, 8 the other cipher needs the wheels in the same order.

Using clear tape carefully tape each cipher wheel strip around the tube so that it can rotate freely. 

Rotate the strips to spell out the message you want to send, then copy down a different line of your cipher. It will look like complete jibberish. 

To solve the cipher rotate the wheels in the cipher to spell out the jibberish text. Then look around the tube to find one line that actually makes sense – this is your message. With quadrillions and quadrillions of possible permutations, it is highly unlikely that any message could be decoded into multiple messages! 

Engineer a plow.

Plows are a tool used in farming to get the land ready for planting. The plow is used to loosen and turn soil, which allows more even nutrition to seeds and softer land for them to sprout. In our project we won’t be engineering a horse drawn or tractor drawn plow – although it you really want to you can certainly engineer a life size plow for fun. 

In this project we will be engineering small handheld plows that can loosen and turn a small soil bed contained in an egg carton. The plow should make a nive straight row for planting seeds, as well as consider how it can use the movement of the plow to turn, or mix, the soil.

Project Ingredients:
Recyclable materials (I use whatever is in our bin at the time)
Hot glue gun and glue
Potting soil
Seeds

Engineer a Jefferson plow.

First, dump out your recycling bin or any other supplies kids can use during this project. Have them brainstorm ideas on how they can make their plow word well. Encourage them to think about how the plow will be pulled, how the plow will dig into the soil, and how the plow will turn the soil to mix it. 

Once they have brainstormed some ideas let them go to it. They will need an egg carton lid full of pressed soil to test their designs on. As the build and test encourage kids to think about how they can optimize the design. What is working and what isn’t? What is important to the plow and what isn’t?

Sometimes kids can get frustrated when the piece they need to make the perfect plow is not available, either because it was never in the pile or because someone else is using it. Part of engineering is finding ways to use the materials available to you, which means finding how another material can fill the position, or potentially rethinking the design.

Once kids are happy with their plows they should plow two neat rows in the egg carton lid and plant a few seeds of choice! Thomas Jefferson’s birthday falls at just the right time to make this the perfect kids garden project!

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