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How does the epidemic affect a dirt plow?

…  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.

The fever will not hinder Mr. Jefferson from sharing his wisdom with you.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
NOTE: The link to Thomas Jefferson’s letter is subject to change by Founders’ Archive. It was accurate when this post was written. If the link is now wrong, search FoundersArchives.gov or call me. I’ll help you find it.
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2 Responses to How does the epidemic affect a dirt plow?

  1. Interesting. Was the moldboard itself constructed of wood? Or was it a design for a cast iron moldboard. This was 1800. Around 1832, a blacksmith named John Deere improved on the basic material; he used sheet steel (used to make saw blades) instead of cast iron for the cutting surface. For typical Midwest soils, the soil stuck to cast iron whereas it usually slid off a steel moldboard. The basic design of a moldboard plow has not changed in all the years since. Today, other types of tillage have replaced most moldboard plows. The best method is “no-till” where there is no disturbance of the soil except for cutting a narrow slot for planting. Weeds are usually controlled with herbicides.

    • Patrick Lee says:

      Jefferson’s design was to be cut from a block of wood, a creation within the means of any farmer. I suppose, but do not know, that the same angles could be crafted out of metal by a blacksmith.

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