The third president of the United States was a busy and creative genius. Jefferson was an esteemed politician, statesman, farmer, writer, educator, and architect. He loved making things. “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight”, he wrote.
A steward of the soil, Jefferson made a huge improvement on the moldboard of the plow. The wooden plowshares of the time only dug down two or three inches into the soil. His improvement of the Dutch moldboard, based on a mathematical design, could dig down six inches. The plow also turned the soil over better which helped prevent erosion. He never patented the improvements he made to the plow. Later steel plows were based on Jefferson’s design.
While serving as George Washington’s Secretary of State from 1790 to 1793, Jefferson needed a means of secretly communicating with his colleagues. Correspondence was frequently intercepted by foreign governments and read. Jefferson devised a wheel cipher that had 26 cylindrical wooden pieces, that looks like large Oreo cookies, and threaded onto an iron rod. The letters of the alphabet were written in random order on the edge of each wheel. Turning these wheels, words could be scrambled and unscrambled. Variations of this code device were used by governments all the way up to WWII.
Jefferson devised a rotating stand that held 5 books. The book rests could be folded to make a box that would attach to a base. This ingenious book stand has been copied by libraries worldwide.
Jefferson’s Great Clock can be seen at Monticello, Virginia. It’s powered by cannonballs that were left over from the Revolutionary War. The cannonball weights hang from both sides of the doorway. The days of the week can be read from markings on the wall. The great clock face can be seen from both inside and outside the house.
To service the Great Clock, Jefferson devised a folding ladder that could also be used to prune trees. This kind of ladder is still used in many libraries to reach up to high book shelves.
John Isaac Hawkins made a “polygraph” machine consisting of two connecting pens that moved synchronously to produce an exact and immediate copy of anything he wrote. Jefferson acquired one of the machines in 1804 and used it up to his death in 1826. He had one installed in the now White House and one at his Monticello home. Jefferson made several improvements on the machine. (The term “polygraph” is used today to mean lie detector. Hawkins and Jefferson machines should really be called pantographs).
The gifted visionary made a mechanical dumb waiter which permitted servants to send wine bottles up from the cellar.
Jefferson produced a sundial that was shaped like a globe. The original was lost but reproductions are based on his 1816 letter to architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
In 1804, Jefferson had glass doors installed between the hall and the parlor in his home. A mechanism, with two wheels joined by a chain in a figure eight arrangement, and hidden under the floor, allowed both doors to move when one was opened or closed.
Thomas Jefferson also invented the swivel chair, a pedometer, and a hemp-treating machine.