I am to thank you for the specimens of waterproof cotton and cloth which you were so good as to send me. the former was new to me. I had before recieved as much of the cloth as made me a great coat, which I have so fully tried as to be satisfied it is water proof except at the seams. I shall be glad when such supplies come over as will enable us to get our common clothes of them: & should suppose they would sell very readily. the silk must be valuable for summer great coats. perhaps the best thing would be for the company to send a person to perform the operation here. I had also recieved some of the water proof paper, & recommended to the Secretary at war to import a quantity for cartridges. Accept my respects & best wishes.
To John Ponsonby, July 14, 1801
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Inventive leaders look for new uses for new things!
Ponsonby was a representative of a British firm that had patented a process for waterproofing paper and cloth. He had already forwarded written descriptions and samples to America’s inventor-President, who had sent them on to his son-in-law, with guarded optimism for their utility. Here, Jefferson replied to the English agent.
He appreciated the waterproofed cotton, something that was “new to me.” (Jefferson loved anything new of a scientific and practical nature!) The coat he made from the cloth samples leaked only “at the seams.”
Ever on the lookout for things that would benefit his country, he suggested the British firm arrange to manufacture water-proofed goods in America. He also wanted to apply the waterproof paper to military use. Soldier’s muskets were fired by a small quantity of gunpowder wrapped in a paper cartridge. (One cartridge was tamped down the barrel with the ram rod, followed by a lead ball. The cartridge was ignited by a small spark from a piece of flint.) Wet cartridge paper meant wet powder which would not fire. Jefferson wanted the Secretary of War to buy this new product so soldiers could keep their weapons ready to fire regardless of the weather.