Tag Archives: Inventions

Keep the powder dry!

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.

“Great Speaker – Great idea.
It was a nice change of pace to all the technical stuff.”
Vice-President, Distribution Control Systems, Inc./TWACS
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Is an inventor entitled to profit from their invention?

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.

“…the standing ovation you received …[proved]
we are grateful for what you did for us.”
President, National Speakers Association
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This is a REALLY good idea! I hope it works!

I inclose you a pamphlet giving some account of the new operation of making cloths &c. waterproof; as also a piece of paper, one half of which is waterproof. I have recieved cloth for a surtout coat [overcoat], which I find, on wearing it in rain, to answer perfectly. the prices for making cloathes waterproof are so moderate, that if it does not injure the quality of the stuff, it will become extensively useful.
To Thomas Mann Randolph, January 1, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Smart leaders keep a sharp eye out for broadly beneficial inventions.
Ever the scientist, Jefferson reported a new waterproofing process to his daughter Martha’s husband. He sent a pamphlet describing it and a piece of treated paper as proof. Not only that, he had a raincoat made for himself and found it worked well.

Although cost was never an issue for Jefferson when he encountered something he wanted, that was not an issue here. The cost of waterproofing fabric was “moderate.” All that remained to be determined was if the treatment damaged the cloth. If not, he saw great potential.

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Who GETS CREDIT for that new thing?

…  who commenced the Revolution? is as difficult as that of the first inventors of a thousand good things.  For example, who first discovered the principle of gravity ?  Not Newton ;  for Galileo, who died the year that Newton was born, had measured its force in the descent of gravid [pregnant, or burdened, heavy] bodies.  Who invented the Lavoiserian chemistry ?  The English say Dr. Black, by the preparatory discovery of latent heat.  Who invented the steamboat ?  Was it Gerbert, the Marquis of Worcester, Newcomen, Savary, Papin, Fitch, Fulton ?  The fact is, that one new idea leads to another, that to a third, and so on through a course of time until some one, with whom no one of these ideas was original, combines all together, and produces what is justly called a new invention.
To Benjamin Waterhouse, March 13, 1818  (2nd letter)

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Real leaders know that many deserve the credit for any new thing.
Benjamin Waterhouse posed the question that opens this excerpt. Jefferson answered by example. The conclusion was no single person but rather by a combination of efforts. The last sentence is key. Eventually, someone would combine the work of others to produce something new. That final person might not have been a contributor to the result but an aggregator of others’ ideas.

Thus, Jefferson could not credit the revolution’s beginning to one person. It belonged to many. He credited others with the inspiration that he later wove into the Declaration of Independence.


Often, the final result is credited to the final person involved (Newton for gravity, Fulton for the steam engine, Jefferson for the Declaration), but it is the work of others that enables that single, final person to bring it all together.

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