… you take a great interest in whatever relates to this first & most precious of all the arts [agriculture], I have packed in a small box, a model of a mouldboard of a plough … accompanied by a block, which will shew the form in which the block is to be got for making the [it] …however as this would not explain it’s principles, alone, I accompany it … [with]a minute description of the principles & construction. the printer having (on his removal from the yellow fever) lost several of the plates … & among them that relating to the Mouldboard, I have supplied this last by some sketches which may enable you to understand the description.
Thomas Jefferson to Robert R. Livingston, April 30, 1800
In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about the yellow fever that ravaged coastal cities in the nation’s earliest years.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders freely give to help others understand.
Thomas Jefferson created a new design for the moldboard, the cutting edge of a plow, making it much more efficient implement for turning the soil. In an age when most men were farmers, his invention had an immediate, practical and valuable benefit. He never patented his invention but shared it freely with others, often including instructions and drawings to illustrate its creation from a block of wood.
He did that for his good friend Livingston (1746-1813), a lifelong political ally. Livingston, served with Jefferson on the “Committee of Five” to draft the Declaration of Independence and in 1803, helped negotiate France’s sale of Louisiana to the U.S.
Jefferson wanted to include the printer’s renderings of the plow, but the printer lost the plates when he fled the yellow fever epidemic. Thus, Jefferson supplied his own sketches.