One new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until someone, with whom no one of these is original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention. (Bedini, "Godfather of American Invention" 82)
At the core of Jefferson's definition lies a belief in the fact that the term new does not necessarily imply only an unprecedented, singular act of fresh enlightenment; rather, as a superior interpretation of the word new, Jefferson's definition does not exclude an act of adaptive thought. As many historians seek to discontinue the portrayal of Jefferson as an inventor in schools, it is crucial that the truth be established through an analysis of Jefferson's designs with regard to a reasonable, inclusive definition of invention. Jefferson is not only accredited with a few designs which are clearly inventions (for instance, the moldboard plow of least resistance and the cipher wheel), but also many innovative designs based upon the works of others (including the portable copying press and the dumb waiters, which he incorporated into the design of his homestead, Monticello). Although Jefferson's designs can be characterized as non-inventions by historians based upon their broad, and slightly unclear, definition of invention, a clarification to the term new in their definition, as can be seen in Jefferson's definition, reveals the justification for the classification of Jefferson's designs as true inventions. In addition to an analysis of Jefferson's inventions based upon his inclusive definition of invention, many parallels may be drawn between Jefferson's approach to invention and that of Alexander Graham Bell, a renowned American inventor, which further elucidate Jefferson's characterization as a true inventor of merit.
Historians and educators alike agree that Jefferson authored several inventions during his lifetime which fulfill the definition of invention from both perspectives. In fact, several of Jefferson's inventions would have certainly claimed widespread applause as well as use, like Bell's telephone, had they not been victims of historical chance. One of his most important inventions could have sparked a revolutionary change in secret military communication had Jefferson applied his invention to a national level. He designed a simple, ingenious, and secure method of encoding and decoding messages, the cipher wheel, while serving as America's minister to France since the European postmasters read all correspondence which passed through their command. This cipher wheel consisted of twenty-six cylindrical wooden pieces threaded onto an iron spindle. The letters of the alphabet were inscribed in a random order along the edge of each wheel and in turning the wheels, a person could scramble and unscramble words. For unknown reasons, Jefferson abandoned use of his cipher wheel in 1802, twelve years after its invention, without having made his design public knowledge. It was reinvented prior to World War I, and its use was implemented by the U. S. Army from 1922 until recent years in the form of Cipher Device M-94. Despite his unquestionable design of the original cipher wheel, Jefferson was never officially recognized for his invention since it was only discovered that he was the true inventor many years after his death.
This lack of recognition occurred frequently throughout Jefferson's life since "philosophical opposition to monopoly in any form led him to oppose the granting of patents" (Bedini, "Godfather of American Invention" 83) Even when Jefferson became the head of the United States Patent Office in 1790, he continued to refuse to patent any of his own inventions as a matter of principle. Such an attitude toward invention somewhat parallels that of the great inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell. Following Bell's achievement of financial stability through his scientific quests for the harmonic telegraph, the telephone, and even the photophone, which occasionally yielded financial return, Bell's incentive for inventing entirely changed. According to history professor Robert Bruce:
Bell's interest, at least after he achieved financial independence, lay less in meeting a market demand than in playing with a physical phenomenon or effect and, more or less as an afterthought, looking for a useful application. (Robert Bruce, "The American Style of Invention: Alexander Graham Bell and the Strategy of Invention," American Patent Law Association (June 1976): 1-16)
Like Jefferson, Bell was also driven by his "child's pleasure in new phenomena and ideas" (Bruce 3); however, Bell's initial incentive which drove him to patent his inventions in hope of financial return may have been influential in his historical perception as a true inventor. That is, the fact that Jefferson, unlike Bell, was financially independent prior to his inventive endeavors and, therefore, did not seek patents nor fame played a significant role in the public perceptions of Jefferson as an inventor. Further, since Jefferson was already extraordinarily famous in politics, the public at the time never truly regarded him as an inventor. Such a lack of recognition from the earliest stages guaranteed that Jefferson would never receive proper credit for his inventions, and in the end, not even the telephone could have overshadowed The Declaration of Independence and the Presidency. Consequently, the fact that Jefferson rarely made his inventions public and, therefore, was not recognized as an inventor through the Patent Office might be an underlying factor which has influenced historians to believe, incorrectly, Jefferson was not a true inventor.
Another invention for which Jefferson received little acknowledgment originated with a gift from one of his colleagues, Benjamin Latrobe. Latrobe presented Jefferson with an ornate column which Jefferson situated in one of his gardens; however, upon observing this column, Jefferson found himself bothered by its lack of purpose. So as to rectify this problem, he devised a spherical sundial to serve as a "finial for the column capital" (Talbot Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955) 270) so as to establish a useful purpose for this ornament. Jefferson best illustrates his design and thought process in a letter to Latrobe in which he describes the new dial to which the capital led:
I had placed the capital on a pedestal of the size proper to its 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 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 hold 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 its lower edge pointed…This devise may be usefully applied to the ornamental ball on gate-posts; or mounted on a balluster, or the frushum of a column, for the purpose of an ordinary dial. It is easily made by a common turner, with materials which every one possesses. (Hamlin 270)
Despite Jefferson's ornate language, this passage illustrates the true inventive thought process that Jefferson followed as well as the incentive which encouraged his invention—the betterment of the life of the common man through inventions which were both affordable and simple to produce. It can be seen that Jefferson's invention originated as he adorned his column with a sphere which bothered Jefferson since it served no purpose. As Jefferson searched for a solution to this lack of utility, he realized that such a globe could be transformed into a dial which could act as a clock. He then proceeded to sketch markings onto the globe which divided the dial into not only whole, half, and quarter hours, but even five minute increments. Next, Jefferson attached the globe to the column in a way which facilitated any necessary adjustments to its alignment. Finally, once the alignment was perfected, Jefferson speculated as to potential applications of such a dial. In conclusion, Jefferson's inventive thought process which led to the invention of both the sundial and the cipher wheel support the fact that Jefferson deserves recognition as an accomplished inventor.
Finally, unlike the sundial and cipher wheel which earned Jefferson only silent credit many years after their design, the moldboard plow of least resistance has received public recognition as his only true invention. After extensive study of the plows in both Europe and America, Jefferson was inspired by their deficiencies to apply scientific principles to the design of a moldboard which was not only lighter and more efficient but also easily made and capable of plowing a deeper furrow than before with much less effort. Jefferson's final model was easily duplicated and designed "to receive the sod after the share [had] cut under it, to raise it gradually, and to reverse it." (Bedini, "Godfather of American Invention" 83) According to Jefferson, this design "mathematically demonstrated to be perfect." (Edwin Betts, ed., Thomas Jefferson's Farm Book (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1953) 48) Jefferson's claim was supported by nearly all farmers as his plow resulted in significant improvements in the efficiency of farming; however, shortly after Jefferson's invention, a new plow was designed which was constructed completely of iron, rather than a combination of both wood and iron, and due to its sturdy nature, this new plow was rapidly adopted as a replacement for Jefferson's moldboard plow of least resistance. It is interesting to note that despite the widespread recognition that Jefferson received for this invention, he never sought to patent his design as he once again did not sway in his convictions which strongly opposed monopolies of any kind. Moreover, the ingenious nature of Jefferson's plow, adapted from pre-existing models, is intriguingly similar to Bell's revolutionary application of Helmholtz's apparatus to the invention of an entirely unique device, the telephone.
Jefferson once stated, "Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight." (Silvio Bedini, Thomas Jefferson: Statesman of Science (New York: McMillan Publishing Co., 1990)) This sentiment reveals itself in the architectural style and inventive nature of each room throughout Jefferson's personally designed homestead, Monticello. For instance, the methods of food service implemented in Jefferson's dining room perfectly represent Jefferson's inventive style. Jefferson installed two dumb waiters on either side of the fireplace mantel which enabled wine bottles to be obtained from the wine cellar below by means of a rope and pulley system. The installment date of these contraptions is unknown; however, it has been argued that Jefferson saw the design in a café in Paris. Even if Jefferson did observe the invention during his travels, his application of such an invention is in and of itself considerably unique. In addition, Jefferson designed a shelved portion of a wall in the corner of the dining room which could spin 360 degrees so as to expose the shelved area to both the dining room as well as the adjacent room. This contraption enabled food to be served without a servant entering the room and disrupting the conversation. Although this may seem a minor accomplishment, according to Margaret Smith, one of Jefferson's dinner guests, such a contrivance was crucial to the privacy of exclusive, political discussions:
Walls it is proverbially said, bare ears…had they also tongues, what important, interesting, and amusing facts could the walls of the President's house reveal…Among (his many contrivances) there was in his dining room an invention for introducing and removing the dinner without the opening and shutting of doors…(making) the attendance of servants totally unnecessary. (Diane Berger,Berger, Diane. "The London Stile of Entertaining Company" (Advertisement) 1)
It was well known that conversation flowed freely in Monticello's dining room as Jefferson informed his guests, "You need not speak so low, you see we are alone and our walls have no ears." (Berger 1) In conclusion, Jefferson's inventions, or applications thereof, served considerable purposes and prove to be significant enough to characterize him as an inventor of great merit.
In addition to these inventions in the dining room of Monticello, small contrivances throughout the mansion illustrate Jefferson's truly inventive spirit. For instance, Jefferson developed a three-stick folding campstool which he used during both his attendance at church services as well as his oversight of the construction of the University of Virginia. When confronted with the difficulty of winding the great clock at Monticello, Jefferson designed an original folding ladder which could be easily stored and retrieved from an accessible location. Also, Jefferson invented a bookstand which consisted of five adjustable rectangular shaped rests for holding books and that could be folded into a small smooth surfaced box for simple storage. Finally, Jefferson modified the oversized stationary copying press so as to fit his needs as a portable copying press. Inventive problem solving as well as the adaptation of existing inventions were characteristic of Jefferson as he followed nature's intent and applied science, through invention, to many aspects of his life.
Finally, Jefferson invented a unique type of door which is still used today although its design has been altered with advancing technology. He invented the first set of doors which functioned simultaneously; if one door was opened, the other opened at the very same time. This inventive doorway was installed between Monticello's entrance hall and parlour in 1804 and the original contraption is still functioning perfectly today. The operating mechanism consists of two wheels, or drums, joined by a chain whose figure-eight arrangement allows both doors to move when only one is opened or closed. These "automatic" double doors are yet one more example of Jefferson's inventive genius which constitutes his recognition as an accomplished inventor.
Although Jefferson's inventions were certainly of significance, they by no means constituted the crux of his public or daily life. Not unlike Jefferson, Bell's "work with and for the deaf was indeed the main theme [of his life], and invention merely the obligatory accompaniment." (Bruce 2) Of course, Jefferson's "main theme" lay in politics. Despite these priorities, invention was a deeply-rooted passion for each of these men. Given this similarity, one might wonder why Jefferson is not given more credit, or Bell less credit, for a life as an inventor. Clearly, the answer is grounded in the fact that Jefferson's "main theme," including the Presidency and the Declaration of Independence, was substantially more renowned than either his inventive character or Bell's work with the deaf. Moreover, history, as it is wont to do, remembered each of these men by their most momentous achievement— for Jefferson that happened to be politics while for Bell it was invention. Thus, Jefferson's life as an inventor is often a view relative to his other achievements rather than a more objective view, relative to other inventors. With a frame of reference comparing him to another similar inventor (Bell, for instance), Jefferson's life as an inventor, while not as noteworthy as Bell's, becomes quite significant. As such, the similarities in both Jefferson's and Bell's views of invention underscores the veracity of Jefferson's life as an inventor.
Each and every one of Jefferson's designs are characterized by Jefferson's definition of invention:
One new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until someone, with whom no one of these is original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention.
Although historians tend to focus upon the textbook definition of invention, a definition which characterizes invention as the production of something based upon an entirely new idea, it is important to note that such a definition proves to be quite ambiguous as the word new is very difficult to define. However, Jefferson specifies that the application of any current inventions to an original design is "justly called a new invention". Such a definition is far superior as it gives well deserved credit to unique thought, the root of all invention. Therefore, an analysis of Jefferson's designs with respect to his definition of invention has demonstrated that Jefferson was truly an inventor. Many of his inventions (for example, the cipher wheel, the sun dial, and the moldboard plow of least resistance) fit both Jefferson's as well as the historians' textbook definitions of invention. In addition, quite a few of his contrivances throughout Monticello also fit both definitions; for instance, his rotating shelved wall for food service, his folding ladder, his campstool, as well as his bookstand. Furthermore, many of his other contrivances (his portable copying press and dumb waiter system) are unique adaptations to existing inventions which perfectly fit Jefferson's definition of invention. In addition to these inventions which earn Jefferson just recognition as an inventor, the several parallels that exist between the scientific styles of Bell and Jefferson also illustrate Jefferson's merit as an inventor. Both Bell and Jefferson "took a child's pleasure" (Bruce 3) in the science of invention, and both were driven by their love of invention rather than by the desire of a patent (Bell adopted this mindset after his achievement of financial independence through a few patents; Jefferson was already financially independent). Finally, both Bell and Jefferson approached invention as more of a hobby than a calling; however, neither took invention lightly as it was an integral facet of both scientists lives. Indeed, Jefferson's passion for invention would have assuredly proved him to be an inventor by Bell's characterization:
[W]herever you may find the inventor, you may give him wealth or you may take from him all that he has; and he will go on inventing. He can no more help inventing than he can help thinking or breathing. (Bruce 3)
In conclusion, Jefferson' numerous designs are all worthy of the title, invention, and his methods justly earn him the title, inventor; therefore, children should continue to learn that Thomas Jefferson was not only the third President of the United States and the author of The Declaration of Independence, but also a noteworthy and esteemed inventor.
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