As aforementioned, Jefferson has been recognized throughout history as an
esteemed politician and statesman, an established architect, as well as
an influential educator; however, we will now look at Jefferson from a
different point of view through an analysis of his life as an inventor.
When discussing the role of science in his life, Jefferson often
commented, "Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my
supreme delight." This philosophy becomes overwhelmingly apparent as we analyze not only
Jefferson's inventions themselves but also his unique attitude toward invention as a science.
Below are brief descriptions and pictures of many of Jefferson's inventions; however, if you are
interested in a more formal, analytical approach to Jefferson's life as an inventor, the following two
essays focus upon the aspects of Jefferson's life which are commonly characteristic of that of an
Thomas Jefferson: A New Perspective
Thomas Jefferson as an Inventor
AN OVERVIEW OF JEFFERSON'S INVENTIONS
MOLDBOARD PLOW OF LEAST RESISTANCE
When in Europe as Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson observed
Dutch moldboard, which is the front of a plow that lifts
up and turns over sod, was awkward and ineffective. Setting his
mind to the problem, Jefferson interwove art and purpose to invent
a new moldboard based on pure mathematical principles, namely,
the right angle. This original moldboard briefly transformed
agriculture (before iron came to replace the wooden plows), and
yet Jefferson never tried to patent it. Believing that invention
should be solely for the good of the people and not for the
advancement of the inventor, Jefferson encouraged public use of
this easily duplicated invention.
Jefferson developed his
wheel cipher between the years 1792 and 1793
while he was serving as the United States' Secretary of State and the
country was faced with controversial foreign policy and national
security issues. The wheel cipher consisted of twenty-six cylindrical
wooden pieces which each had a hole bored into its center so that they
could then be threaded onto an iron spindle. On the edge of each
wheel, all twenty-six letters of the alphabet was inscribed. By using the
cipher, a person could scramble and unscramble letters in order to
Jefferson constructed his sundial in conjunction with Benjamin H.
Latrobe in 1809. Jefferson best described his thought process
which eventually led to his creation of the sundial.
"I had placed the Capital on a pedestal of the size proper to
it's diameter, and had reconciled their confluence into one
another by interposing plinths successively diminishing. It
looked bald for want of something to crown it. I therefore
surmounted it with a globe and it's neck, as is usual on gate
posts. I was not yet satisfied; because it presented no idea
of utility. It occurred then that this globe might be made
to perform the functions of a dial. I ascertained on it two
poles, delineated it's equator and tropics, described meridians
at every 15 degrees from tropic to tropic, and shorter portions
of meridian intermediately for the half hours, quarter hours, and
every 5 minutes. I then mounted it on it's neck, with it's axis
parallel to that of the earth by a hole bored in the Nadir of our
latitude, affixed a meridian of sheet iron, moveable on it's
poles, and with it's plane in that of a great circle, of course
presenting it's upper edge to the meridian of the heavens
corresponding with that on the globe to which it's lower edge
After his completion of the sundial, Jefferson stated, "Perhaps
indeed this may be no novelty. It is one however to me."
One of Jefferson's most visible inventions, the Great Clock,
dominates the entrance hall of
Monticello. Cannonballs from the
Revolution, powered by gravity, hang along both sides of the
doorway, and onlookers can read the day of the week and the time
from markings on the wall. In another of Jefferson's insights,
the Great Clock's face can be seen from both inside and outside
to encourage exercise and productivity. There is purposely no
minute hand on the face of the clock because, Jefferson said,
"two wheels were to turn an hour hand on the reverse face of the
wall on a wooden hour plate of 12 inch radius. There need be no
minute hand, as the hour figures will be 6 inches apart, but the
interspace should be divided into 1/4 seconds and 5 minute marks"
- the hour hand provides the necessary accuracy. The Great Clock
was connected to a large copper gong on the roof and was reputed
to sound all the way to the University of Virginia. Although he
did collaborate on the clock with his mechanical confidant, Louis
Leschot, the idea was Jefferson's.
For repairs to the Great Clock, Jefferson invented a mahogany
ladder that folded up into almost a pole for storage. This
ladder, which Jefferson also recommended for pruning trees, was
the first of its kind in the United States and, in the late 1800's,
became prevalent in U.S. libraries.
PORTABLE COPYING PRESS
Jefferson invented the portable copying press when his overseas travel called for a compact version of the copying press previously invented by James Watt. In the original copying machine, one wrote with ink on a copper plate which could then produce numerous copies; Jefferson praised this enthusiastically because of how well it facilitated record-keeping and correspondence and subsequently sought to improve it. Jefferson designed a lap desk which would hold all the essentials of his day, from a thermometer to pencils to a nightcap, as well as his portable copying press. With his wide-ranging intellect, Jefferson examined not just the pure science of an invention but also its practicality and aesthetics.
The polygraph, another letter copying device, was invented by an Englishman, John Hawkins, but was perfected by Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson first received the polygraph, constructed of two connected pens, he called it "the finest invention of the present age". (Jefferson to Bowdoin, 1806)In correspondence with museum director Charles Peale, Jefferson continually suggested improvements that arose through his observant use of the polygraph.
In the Dining Room at Monticello on each side of the fireplace,
Jefferson placed mechanical dumb waiters which permitted servants
to send wine bottles up from the cellar. It is possible that
Jefferson saw a similar apparatus in the Café Mecanique, located
in the Palais Royal.
"AUTOMATIC" DOUBLE DOORS
When Jefferson installed the glass doors between the hall and the
parlor in 1804, he added a very unique touch to the design. The
doors were controlled by an operating mechanism which was hidden
under the floor and consisted of two wheels joined by a chain
whose figure-eight arrangement allowed both doors to move when
one was opened or closed.
Jefferson designed an unique revolving stand with five adjustable
rectangular shaped rests for holding books. The rests could be
folded in to make a small smooth-surfaced box which could then
attach to the base.
Monticello contained no bedsteads; instead, Jefferson designed
beds which lay in alcoves of rooms on a mesh of rope hung on hooks.
Although Jefferson could have seen this design in Europe, he
applied in ingeniously to his mansion. Jefferson's own bed lay
in an alcove between two rooms, and it is possible that he
installed a mechanical apparatus to raise the bed to the ceiling
during the day to allow passage below.
Thomas Jefferson introduced an improved revolving Windsor chair
to the United States after seeing it in Europe. Combining the
Windsor chair with a writing arm and a leg rest in Monticello's
joinery, Jefferson, according to his own definition of invention,
created a new piece of furniture.
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