1791. "On the whole I find nothing any where else in point of climate which Virginia need envy to any part of the world..."
Thomas Jefferson on Albemarle County, VA


As mentioned, 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."

When in Europe as Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson observed that the 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 code messages.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Those are just a few of Mr. Jefferson's inventions. There are double glass doors from the entrance hall into the parlor. Through an ingenious set of weights and a figure 8 chain under the floor, when one door is opened or closed, they both work together.

If you'll click on the picture of Thomas Jefferson, we'll go learn some more about this remarkable man.