The second in a continuing series on board-certified Great American Thomas Jefferson, or, as I call him, board-certified Greatest American.
Jefferson’s interest in and skill at design weren’t limited to architecture. He was an extremely accomplished scientist, naturalist, and inventor, all of which led to numerous designs for machines and objects both divine and banal. In common they share a bent toward usefulness, and a spirit pointing to a richer way of living. To wit:
In 1794 Jefferson designed and built a new and better plow. This new plow, composed of iron and mould board rather than the simple wooden plows in common use, was able not only to dig deeper into the soil but also to turn the furrow to the downhill side of sloped land. This was vital for hilly agriculture, (and Monticello certainly qualified) because it drastically cut down on the erosion that threatened hundreds of farms every spring.
Jefferson was also a lover of food and wine; his Whitehouse dinners were legendary for their length, the amount and diversity of cuisine, and the total absence of servants or seating arrangements; Jefferson wanted conversation first and foremost, so he never used waiters and formal structures unless he had to. Below is his design for a macaroni machine, a pasta he’d been exposed to during his international travels:
Here, a photograph of the dumbwaiters Jefferson invented so he and his guests could serve themselves wine from the cellar without leaving the table:
His design expertise ranged beyond the mere mechanical however, and into the merely ingenious.
When he was Secretary of State under George Washington, Jefferson invented a completely secure (at the time) encoding device for sending secret messages. It was especially important for American officials serving in Europe, as European postmasters opened and read all international correspondence without exception. Here’s the wheel:
The sender of a message would merely turn all the cylinders until they spelled out a sentence. Then, they would choose another line of text on the cylinder and copy it down; for example CGHY TSOU AWQC KLIGU CLIO. This is the message they would send. The recipient would then use their own encoder to copy the sent message, then search around the cylinder for the spelled out sentence. Trixy, as they say.
One of Jefferson’s coolest inventions was the so-called Great Clock, which is still in working order at Monticello. The clock has two faces, one on the inside and one outside. It is driven by weights (Revolutionary war cannon balls weighing 18 pounds) which hang on the end of two long wires, which lead from the sides of the clock to the nearest wall, where they drop down and descend, eventually, into the cellar. The balls serve not only as gravitational mechanics, they also mark the month and day of the week, as well as approximate time of day.
The day/month is indicated by the labels on the wall.
Jefferson also invented the first copy machine (and made it portable), developed the first true polygraph (not the lying test, but an ingenious contraption that hitched two pens together and made it possible to write a second copy of a letter simultaneously as you were writing the first). Jefferson invented the first spherical sundial, as well developed a rotating closet, mirroring the mechanical tie racks of today but on a much larger scale. He developed a folding, rotating, five-surfaced book stand upon which five books could be opened and read from. He also invented a new type of furniture, adding lounge and desk accoutrements to traditional chairs.
In a highly specialized world, it’s always interesting to reflect on the renaissance men of the past. Jefferson was possibly the best (Franklin-ites go home!).