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Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Thomas Jefferson: Innovator-in-Chief

      Although Abraham Lincoln is the only president to hold a patent, he is not the only one credited with inventions and improvements on existing devices. One of the most prolific tinkerers among our Commanders-in-Chief was Thomas Jefferson. 

Thomas Jefferson - National Gallery

      Jefferson’s innovations cover a broad spectrum of ingenuity. According to Neely Tucker at the Library of Congress, “Throughout his life, Jefferson possessed an insatiable curiosity about technology and a compulsion to figure out how things work and to make them work better.

Revolving Book Stand -

     One of Jefferson’s original inventions, the revolving book stand, consisted of five adjustable book stands on a turntable. The stand could be folded down to make a cube. When in use, it swiveled so any of the books could face the reader, and multiple open books could be viewed at the same time, thereby making comparison and cross-referencing more convenient. For the user, it was the 1810 version of having multiple computer files open while working on a project.

Wheel Cipher - Wikicommons

     While serving as George Washington’s Secretary of State, Jefferson invented the wheel cipher to provide an easy way to create and decipher encoded messages. It is made up of 36 wooden disks on a spindle. Each disk is inscribed with letters of the alphabet in a different order.  By arranging the disks in different patterns, one could create a "key" and inscribe messages under a set code. 

Jefferson's Drawing of Macaroni Machine and Instructions -
Library of Congress 

     Although frequently credited with inventing the macaroni extruder, many credible sources believe that Jefferson had acquired a macaroni mold from Italy while he was serving as ambassador to France. This document in his own handwriting indicates not only his interest in how the machine worked, but his reference to the best macaroni in Italy being made with Semola flour suggests he might also have been an eighteenth century “foodie.”

Re-creation of Spherical Sundial -
Monticello Classroom

     Sundials had been around for centuries, but Jefferson devised one in the shape of a sphere for his home at Monticello. The globe was made of slate and marked with lines. A semicircular bar attached at its axis cast a shadow that aligned with a line etched on the globe that indicated the time.

Polygraph -

     One of his most famous innovations is an early version of a copying machine, the polygraph. Jefferson’s device incorporated his improvements to an earlier letter-copying device invented by John Hawkins and Charles Peale. Jefferson’s polygraph was basically one pen attached to another pen that moved in tandem with the first pen. He used it extensively to write letters with his polygraph and at the same time create an identical copy.     

Jefferson's Diagram for Plow and Re-creation -

     As the owner of extensive crop fields, Jefferson had a keen interest in improving the technology of farming. After extensive study of European plows, he designed the “mouldboard of least resistance” to move with as little effort as possible. The mouldboard is the part of the plow that turns and lifts the soil. He applied his mastery of mathematics to the design process so the plow could be pulled through the soil with the least expenditure of force, and had the mouldboard made with cast iron so it would be stronger than wood.

     Thomas Jefferson never personally held a patent, but he was the first commissioner and inspector of patents in the United States. This kept him current on new inventions and allowed him to incorporate good ideas and the latest technology into his daily life.


Ann Markim



  1. Loved this post. He was certainly a deep-thinker and very practical man. I had no idea he had invented so may things.

    1. And there were many more items on which he made improvements from the existing designs. A fascinating president.

  2. Busy bloke!
    Thanks for sharing this, Ann

  3. I have always admired Jefferson's mind. So much more than a plantation owner, a politician, a man, complex and so many different aspects to his incisive mind. Thanks for the great article.

  4. Thanks for your comment. He was truly brilliant.

  5. As usual a great post on history. Thank you. Doris