should you propose to secure to yourself by a patent the benefit of the ideas contained in your letter, I will lodge it in the patent office of the Secretary of state: or should you prefer a communication of it to the world, I would transmit it to the Philosophical society at Philadelphia. either the one or the other shall be done as you shall direct.
To Thomas McLean, June 9, 1802
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Some inventor leaders are motivated by service, not profit.
McLean had written a detailed, complicated letter about theoretical improvements for mills that grind grain. He asked the President’s opinion of his theory and for patent help that would allow him to develop a prototype. Jefferson expressed his great interest but declined to study it. It fell into the realm of “philosophical speculations.” His duties as President left him no time to pursue such things, no matter how much he enjoyed them.
He gave McLean a choice. He would either submit McLean’s theory to the patent office for its protection or offer his idea to the world for free, through the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. (Jefferson was president of the APS, too.)
Jefferson was an inventor who never patented any of his creations. He thought the inspiration for his inventions was in the atmosphere, just as easily retrieved by someone else as by him. Thus, he sought no proprietary control, but offered his ideas to the public. He compared his choice to lighting another’s candle from his own. Someone else now had light, and his own was not diminished.
Jefferson’s decades-long precarious financial position might have been improved had he chosen to patent and profit from his inventions.