If mr Peale can succeed in producing fresh from salt water by a filtering apparatus, it will be a valuable discovery. there are parts of the world where a want of pure water may render the separation of impurities by filtration of value, provided they are better separated, or more cheaply, than by distillation. but besides the utility of the immediate discovery, no discovery is barren. it always serves as a step to something else.
To Robert Patterson, April 17, 1802
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders encourage experimentation, regardless of results.
Patterson (1743-1824, compared to Jefferson, 1743-1826) was a noted Irish-born mathematician, scientist, and professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He was one of Meriwether Lewis’ tutors, at Jefferson’s request, before the young man headed up the Missouri River with William Clark in 1804.
Here, Jefferson commented on another scientist’s (Charles Willson Peale) efforts to desalinate ocean water. He lauded the experimentation, because it might prove cheaper than distillation, the only other method available.
While Jefferson hoped for an immediate application, he would not be dismayed if that did not happen. He was noted for taking the long view. “No discovery is barren,” he wrote. “It always serves as a step to something else.”