Skip to main content
No. 792:
Jefferson & Technology

Today, Thomas Jefferson and a generosity of ideas. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Historian Hugo Meier tells about Thomas Jefferson. He says,

When British armies burned ... Washington in 1814 and its library of ... 3000 volumes, Jefferson [replaced the books with] eleven wagon loads of volumes from his own library -- [6500 books] -- the nucleus of a new Library of Congress.

Jefferson the scholar didn't have just the books to replace the Library of Congress. He actually doubled its original size.

All his life Jefferson learned, and used knowledge, to shape America. First among the things he studied were the technologies that would define a new nation. His vision shaped our architecture, transportation systems, energy use, and much more.

If Ben Franklin had been the quintessential American scientist, Jefferson was the quintessential engineer/inventor. Both were practical people. Franklin's science was empirical and down-to-earth. But he held a primal interest in the nature of things. Jefferson read science only with an eye toward its use.

His home at Monticello was an inventor's laboratory. Its experimental furniture, clockwork, and gadgetry still dazzle visitors today. Out of that laboratory flowed a new idea of what American technology should be.

Jefferson designed a light defensive navy of small gunboats. He translated classical architecture from stone into wood. He'd studied the English Industrial Revolution with the clear conviction that it must take a different form in America.

We must keep our industries light and flexible. We must build canals and roads. We must constantly apply science to domestic objectives. We must decentralize our power sources.

But he held a primary belief in technological change. He wrote to his friend Robert Fulton that resistance to change was what kept the American Indian in an underdeveloped state.

As secretary of state, Jefferson ran our first American patent office. For him, its purpose was to promulgate inventions, not to protect them. He hated monopoly and was determined that the patent process shouldn't serve it. The peculiar character of an idea, said Jefferson, is that

... no one possesses the less because everyone possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me receives [it] without lessening [me], as he who lights his [candle] at mine receives light without darkening me.

Jefferson had used mathematics to design a wonderfully improved plow. When he was done, he gave it away -- to America -- then to Europe. He would turn in his grave at the way today's patents make ideas into property.

That may sound idealistic. But his generosity -- of books, of ideas themselves -- shaped us. It is a seminal generosity that we should remember, in a more businesslike age.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Meier, H.A., Thomas Jefferson and a Democratic Technology. Technology in America: A History of Individuals and Ideas. (C.W. Pursell, ed.), Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1986, Chapter 3.

A Zoroastrian friend made an interesting point about this episode. It was that Jefferson was an ardent Freemason, and Freemasonry derived much from Zoroastrianism. Jefferson's candle analogy, it seems, is an old Zoroastrian idea.