Thomas Jefferson Biography (1743-1826)

politician and inventor

Dubbed the "sage of Monticello " and the "godfather of American invention," Thomas Jefferson created a variety of practical devices, notably the dumbwaiter, lazy Susan, folding campstool, folding ladder and music stand, portable copying press, portable writing desk, revolving chair, cipher wheel for cryptography, moldboard plow, hemp-breaker for threshing machines, and improved carding machine. A native of Shadwell in Albemarle County, Virginia, Jefferson received a classical education from private tutors. At age 17, he entered William and Mary College and studied math and science. He was admitted to the barin 1767, and practiced law in Williamsburg for two years.

Jefferson filled several political jobs, including county lieutenant, countysurveyor, and member of the House of Burgesses and alternate to the Continental Congress. Following two terms as governor of Virginia, he retired to farmthe land around his Palladian estate, Monticello. Many of his labor-saving devices date to his return to the land, notably his nail factory, which was intended to supplement his irregular and unpredictable income from agriculture.Inside Monticello, Jefferson's desire for privacy prompted the invention of the lazy Susan, which allowed servants to deliver food to the dining room without intruding. Dumbwaiters built into the side of the mantle allowed wine stewards to send up bottles from the wine cellar without interrupting the flow of conversation.

Jefferson's preoccupation with efficiency and convenience prompted some of his more unusual household inventions. He constructed a screened alcove bed which fit into a wall between two rooms. This gave the occupant the option of getting out of bed in whichever room he chose. At the foot of the bed was turntable with forty-eight projecting fingers which could hold ties, vests, and coats. Alongside his bed stood a revolving-top writing table he created to streamline his mechanical drawing. Opposite was a revolving chair, which also conserved motion as he reached for books and drawing supplies or referred to volumes from his sizeable library. After arthritis set in, Jefferson refined hisdesk chair into a chaise lounge to relieve the ache in his joints.

Jefferson was also fascinated with timekeeping and unusual clock designs. Over his front door at Monticello was an imposing two-faced clock which faced the outside and the foyer. Its cannonball weights also served as seven-day calendars. To reach the top of the clock for service and synchronizing, he devised a folding ladder.

To assure cooling for fresh foods, beverages, and ice cream, Jefferson refined the concept of the icehouse. As an aid in the removal of melted ice, he replaced the usual pump with a square tube running from the ground through the top. A servant hauled up melted ice in a bucket, which was fitted with a leather valve in the bottom and moved vertically up the square tube for emptying.The resulting ice water he transferred to his four cisterns, which he devisedto store rainwater for domestic use and fire protection.

In his letters, Jefferson mentions his numerous and varied interest in inventions, particularly the application of steam power to navigation and manufacturing. He redesigned the moldboard plow, which farmers on both sides of the Atlantic used, and introduced rice, olives, and sheep to American farmers. Eager to standardize money, weights, and measures, he also drew up a decimal system for coins, helped regulate patent procedures, and served as the nation's first patent officer.

In 1797, Jefferson entered public office, first as vice president, then as president of the United States. On his return to Monticello, he founded the University of Virginia, one of his most satisfying accomplishments. He also devoted himself to reading the classics and helped establish the Library of Congress by donating his personal library. Jefferson tried to improve agriculturetechniques at Monticello until his death in 1826.

Recent Updates

October 5, 2005: Jefferson will face forward rather than sideways in the new five-cent piece scheduled for release in 2006, the U.S. Mint announced. Source: CNN,, October 5, 2005.

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