Thomas Jefferson Science


Michael Benton, Contributor

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thomas jefferson scienceOne of the notable polymaths among the Founding Fathers of the United States, Thomas Jefferson's inventions were not only political. In his own time (1743-1826), Jefferson was recognized as an influential American architect, botanist, lawyer, politician and diplomat as well as a productive planter and pragmatic inventor. Starting with his education at the College of William & Mary under the renowned professor Dr. William Small, Jefferson stood out for his curiosity and mastery of a wide variety of subjects including mathematics, metaphysics, classical philosophy, Enlightenment political theory and the natural sciences. As mechanical inventions were popularized as solutions for industrial and agricultural efficiency, Thomas Jefferson inventions incorporated and adjusted many of them for his endeavors in growing tobacco and other cash crops on the lands around Monticello. Although this cultivation relied mainly on slave labor, Jefferson still struggled to foster a profitable income without utilizing every possible advantage of contemporary technology. For example, one Thomas Jefferson invention was the iron and mould board plow that he developed along with his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, in 1794. This specialized plow was designed to work along hillsides and to push deeper than a traditional wooden version; by basing the plow's form on mathematical formulas, its inventors allowed for mass production and improvement.

In the eyes of Thomas Jefferson, science was a frontier of unexplored solutions to his own practical issues. When the Second Continental Congress put him in charge of drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was eager to utilize another one of his inventions: the swivel chair. Crafted from the body of an English-style Windsor chair, Jefferson's edition allowed the owner to reduce time wasted standing and turning to retrieve books and supplies. After he completed the final draft of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had the chair sent to Monticello and today it is open for viewing at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. One of his favorite inventions, though not one of his own, was the polygraph to which he made some minor adjustments. This duplicating device used a torsion beam and parallel linkage to hold two pens so that one will copy the writing of the other; duplication was an enormous help to Jefferson as he was writing letters to multiple recipients on a daily basis, especially during his time as the third President of the United States.

The inventions of Thomas Jefferson are proof of a scientifically reasoned and pragmatic philosophy that was in tune with the political theories and religious views he also developed. The Thomas Jefferson inventions list is seldom recognized in the shadows of his giant contributions to American politics and government structure, but its nonetheless relevant to understanding the man himself. There is no amazing Thomas Jefferson light bulb, but he did have some exciting inventions such as the coded cipher wheel that allowed the nation's first Secretary of State to secure the secrecy of State Department communication. At the magnificent mansion of Monticello, a number of Jefferson inventions are apparent but none so loud as the "Great Clock" he had built into the roof which was powered by gravity's pull on cannonballs from the War for Independence.