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Thomas Jefferson - Jeffrey H Matsuura



This talk was given at the symposium Technology and Democratic Values

in the Early Republic, sponsored by the Lemelson Center for the Study of

Invention and Innovation, Smithsonian Institution, on November 3, 2006,

in the Rotunda of the University of Virginia.



Jefferson’s Unique Perspective

As a result of the breadth of Thomas Jefferson’s interests and experience, he had an exceptional perspective on the relationships involving intellectual property rights, invention/innovation, and democratic values.  A national political leader, a renowned scientist and highly active inventor, a pioneer in the development of American patent law, and a dynamic consumer of innovations, Thomas Jefferson possessed an unusually comprehensive perspective on the connections linking intellectual property rights, invention/innovation, economic development, and democratic values.

Jefferson was a well-known scientist of his time.  His interests spanned a wide range of sciences and engineering.  His scientific interests and accomplishments were substantial enough to lead to his election as president of the American Philosophical Society, one of the leading scientific organizations in the United States during Jefferson’s time.  Perhaps most important, Jefferson viewed himself as a scientist.  In an 1809 letter to Pierre Samuel DuPont de Nemours, Jefferson wrote: “Nature intended for me the tranquil pursuits of science by rendering them my supreme delight.”

Jefferson was a pioneer in the development of American patent law.  As Secretary of State, he served on the first Board of Arts, the body that reviewed patent applications and granted patents.  In effect, Jefferson was one of a triumvirate that served as both America’s first patent commissioner and first patent examiner.  As a result of his technical experience and interests, Jefferson dominated the Board of Arts, and its operational approach to patent review was largely shaped by him, adopting a focus on patents based on the utility, novelty, and non-obviousness of the invention.

Jefferson was also an active consumer of ideas, inventions, and innovations developed by others.  His correspondence reveals his substantial interest in the work of other inventors, and significant interaction with them.  He was, for example, very curious about the polygraph, a device used to generate copies of written documents.  Jefferson also devoted attention to a? cryptographic device, the wheel cipher.  As a farmer, he tried out/examined a variety of agricultural devices.  He had great respect for the work of inventors.  In a 1798 letter to John Taylor, Jefferson praised advances in a design developed by Thomas Martin, noting:

Mr. Martin’s improvement in the cups of his drill is a beautiful one, and it is now the most compleat machine in the world for sowing a single row.  I have sent it to the board of agriculture in London and informed them whose invention it is.

Even as Jefferson was open to and appreciative of the innovations of other inventors, he continued to pursue, and to suggest, additional refinements to enhance the quality and performance of their work.  In the 1798 letter to John Taylor, after having offered high praise of the invention of Thomas Martin, Jefferson went on to suggest some potential improvements of the design:

I think this so admirably simple that I made a drawing of it, and now enclose it for Mr. Martin’s consideration. . . . I wish he could be induced to make me one which would sow 4 rows at a time 12 in. apart from row to row, this would add greatly to its value and is the only point in which Cook’s famous drill plow has the advantage of it.  In every thing else Mr. Martin’s is preferable to Cook’s.

This perspective gave Jefferson extraordinary insight into the relationships involving invention, intellectual property, economic growth, and democracy.  He understood, from direct experience, how all of these components connected to each other, and their overall impact on the nation.


Jefferson and Invention

Although Jefferson greatly admired inventors, he was critical of them when, in his view, they attempted to restrict access to their inventions.  He was not opposed to inventors’ seeking economic compensation from the use of their creations; however, he was opposed to efforts that restricted access to inventions and innovations.  His interaction with Jacob Isaacks illustrates this point.

 In the late 1700s, Isaacks developed a distillation process, using heat, to convert seawater into water fit for human consumption.  He believed his system had significant value for the U.S. Navy; thus, he petitioned Congress to persuade the government to purchase the system for use on American vessels.  Congress asked Jefferson to evaluate Isaacks’ proposal.  In 1791, Jefferson convened a panel of experts and invited Isaacks to demonstrate his system and to answer the panel’s questions.  Jefferson led the probing inquiry, and for three days Isaacks conducted his demonstration and responded to the panel’s rigorous inquiries.

 In November 1791, Jefferson submitted the review panel’s “Report on Desalination of Seawater” to Congress.  In their Report, the panel concluded that, although Isaacks’ system was effective, it did not represent a significant improvement over the various other desalination systems  developed over the years and widely recognized in the relevant literature.  The Report pointed out that desalination systems, including Isaacks’, were indeed effective, and that the government should disseminate information regarding their utility and their manner of operation to the Navy and to the general public.  But the panel also concluded that no compensation need be provided to Isaacks as his system did not represent a significant improvement over the desalination systems that preceded it.  This conclusion reflectd Jefferson’s standard that only true novelty of invention should be rewarded, and that public dissemination of information about different systems, methods, and practices should be widely promoted.

 Jefferson’s views concerning invention and innovation are also reflected in his interaction with Oliver Evans, a well-known American inventor of the 1800s.  Evans was a prolific inventor, and he aggressively patented his work.  He worked in the fields of steam engine technology and mechanization of milling systems.  Evans enforced his patents for milling technologies across the rising number? of different kinds of? applications for those technologies.  He demanded royalties from operators of agricultural mills, including Jefferson.  Jefferson paid, but he was not happy about it.  He was troubled by the ability of a patent owner to enforce a single? patent across a wide range of applications.

 Jefferson was even more concerned about the Evans patents because Jefferson did not consider Evans’ technology to be novel.  In an 1813 letter to Isaac McPherson, Jefferson provides a historical review of how the Egyptians and the Persians, among others, had long used systems similar to that patented by Evans, to raise and move water and other content.  Jefferson wrote:

A string of buckets is invented and used for raising water, ore, etc., can a second have a patent rights to the same machine for raising wheat, a third oats, a fourth rye, a fifth peas, etc.?  The question whether such a string of buckets was invented first by Oliver Evans is a mere question of fact in mathematical history.

 Jefferson admired and respected inventors, and he considered himself to be one.  Yet, although he was willing to accept economic claims of inventors, he was opposed to inventors restricting access to their work.  Jefferson was willing to reward inventors to the extent that their work represented a significant advance over what was known before.  He often questioned, however, the extent to which current apparent advances truly represented substantial enhancements over prior work.


Jefferson’s View of the Significance of Intellectual Property Rights

For Jefferson, intellectual property rights provided a useful, but not an essential, tool for encouraging invention.  He recognized that intellectual property rights could provide economic incentives for inventors to develop and share innovations.  In a 1709 letter to Benjamin Vaughan, Jefferson wrote:

An Act of Congress authorizing the issuing of patents for new discoveries has given a spring of invention beyond my conception…. Many of them indeed are trifling, but there are some of great consequence which have been proved by practice, and others which if they stand the same proof will produce a great effect.

Jefferson did not believe, however,  that such incentive was essential to the process of innovation.  He took the position that inventions cannot effectively be controlled by a single person.  In 1813, he wrote:

Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.  Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from any body.

 One of Jefferson’s greatest objections to the notion that inventors might absolutely control rights of access to, and use of, their inventions, was based in his opposition to monopolies.  In a 1788 letter to James Madison, he wrote, “. . .it is better to abolish monopolies, in all cases, than not to do it in any.”  Jefferson was troubled by patent and other intellectual property rights that granted absolute control over rights of use to the creators of the works — largely because he viewed such grants to be government-issued monopolies.

 To Jefferson, patents and other forms of monopoly rights for inventors were not needed for promoting invention and innovation.  He was critical of nations, such as England, that granted monopoly patent rights, because he considered them unnecessary and feared that they would actually impede innovation.  In 1813, he wrote:

. . . other nations have thought these monopolies produce more embarrassment than advantage to society; and it may be observed that the nations which refuse monopolies of invention, are as fruitful as England in new and useful devices.

Largely because Jefferson feared the consequences of granting broad patent rights, his actions when he served, in effect, as the lead patent examiner for the United States involved careful review of patent applications and a limited view of that which should be patentable.  As a patent examiner, Jefferson took the position that a patent should not necessarily cover different uses for, or applications of, the invention.  A patent holder should not be able to control all its future implementation.  Jefferson wrote to Isaac McPherson in 1813:

. . . a machine of which we were possessed, might be applied by every man to any use of which it is susceptible, and that this ought not be taken from him and given to a monopolist, because the first perhaps had occasion so to apply it.  Thus a screw for crushing plaster might be employed for crushing corn-cobs.

He also believed that merely changing the material used to build an invention should not provide an adequate basis for a new patent.  In 1813, he wrote: “Another rule was that change of material should not give title to a patent.  As the making of a ploughshare of cast rather than wrought iron. . . .”  In that same 1813 letter to McPherson, Jefferson added that “a mere change of form should give no right to a patent, as a high quartered shoe instead of a low one; a round hat instead of a three-square; or a square bucket instead of a round one.”

Jefferson’s approach to intellectual property rights was based upon a willingness to reward truly novel advances of significant merit, and a desire to avoid permitting those rights to be used as impediments to sharing knowledge and having access to inventions.  Thus, Jefferson would likely favor compulsory intellectual property licenses, which provide economic compensation for the owners of the property but ensure reasonable access to the property.  He would likely oppose both broad assertion and enforcement of patent rights and use of injunctive relief by courts to deny rights of use pending resolution of patent claims.


Jefferson and the Importance of Ideas and Invention

Jefferson believed that the free inquiry of science and the widespread diffusion of new ideas and knowledge were essential components of a healthy, vibrant democracy.  In an 1821 letter, he wrote, “Science is more important in a republican than any other government….”  Jefferson recognized that knowledge, and the spread of knowledge, were essential to democratic values.  In his 1778 “Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge,” Jefferson noted that the most effective way to fight tyranny is “to illuminate as far as practicable the minds of the people at large.”  In 1786, he wrote, “I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for diffusion of knowledge among people.  No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness.” 

He noted the importance of widespread diffusion of ideas (and the futility of attempting to restrict them) in an 1813 letter to Isaac McPherson:

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.

 He recognized the communal nature of ideas and of the inventions that they spur.  In the 1813 letter to McPherson, he wrote:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others to exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it focuses itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver can not dispossess himself of it.  Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less because every other possesses the whole of it.  He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

 Confident in the power of inventions and innovation, Jefferson believed that useful and innovative creations would eventually be recognized and embraced.  In a 1797 letter to John Oliver, the father of a young inventor, Jefferson noted: “If your son has invented anything effectual in this way, he will need no other patronage than the importance and value of his own discovery.”

 For Jefferson, those inventions that had a direct and beneficial impact on the quality of life of the general public were most valuable.  In 1794, writing to Richard Morris, an inventor attempting to patent waterproof cloth, he said that the Morris invention was:

… a valuable discovery…because it will enable many to guard themselves against the effects of wet; but its importance will be truly great if the process be so cheap as it will admit to be used for the laboring part of mankind.  The rich have so many resources already for taking care of themselves, that an advantage the more, if confined to them, would not excite our interest; but if it can be introduced commonly for labourers, it then becomes valuable indeed.

Jefferson made a similar point when he wrote to Jeudy de l’Hommande in 1787 regarding de l’Hommande’s invention of improvements to methods of flour preservation, “Every discovery which multiplies the subsistence of men, must be a matter of joy to every friend of humanity.”

 He was aware of the significant impact that invention and innovation had on national economic development.  In 1821, he wrote:

. . . in an infant country like ours we must depend for improvement on science of other countries, longer established, possessing better means, and more advanced than we are.  To prohibit us from the benefit of a foreign light, is to consign us to darkness.



Jefferson, Invention, and Democracy: Yesterday and Today

Jefferson recognized the importance of knowledge and dissemination of information.  Knowledge and access to knowledge were, in his mind, essential to the preservation of a democracy.  He viewed them as necessary components of economic development and improved quality of life.  Patents and other forms of intellectual property rights were, for him, potentially helpful but non-essential policy tools for encouraging invention and innovation.  However, he vigorously opposed use of intellectual property rights to limit the exchange of ideas and access to innovations.  Jefferson was ultimately skeptical of the ability of a single inventor, acting in isolation, to create true advances over all prior work, believing instead that invention was a collaborative act involving connections with colleagues, present and past.  He was also confident that government would, in the end, be unable to block the flow of ideas that provides the driving force for economic advance, quality of life improvements, and democratic society.

 There are lessons for today in this Jeffersonian vision of invention and democracy.  Jefferson would likely applaud advances in technology such as the Internet, wireless network access, open source software, peer-to-peer data file-sharing, and interactive digital media content, that encourage and facilitate sharing of ideas and information and collaborative creation.  He would likely be sympathetic to the calls of the nations of the developing world for relief from some of the more restrictive components of patent law that impede access to life-saving medications, and for assistance as they attempt to use intellectual property law to manage their indigenous knowledge and to build their own knowledge-based infrastructures.  And he would likely be troubled by expansive assertion of patent and copyright claims that more closely resemble economic extortion than legitimate pursuit of fair compensation for genuine works of innovation.  He would also almost certainly be concerned about modern legal initiatives that attempt to restrict the international movement of people and information.

 Jefferson understood far better than the vast majority of his colleagues, then and now, the vital connection linking invention, economic growth, quality of life, and democratic values.  In many ways, the technological advances that took place between his time and ours have empowered a global information and communications society that he may have envisioned but did not live to see.  If he were alive today, almost certainly we would find Jefferson on the Lawn of his beloved University of Virginia, using wireless broadband and a mobile computing device to participate in blogs, to collaborate on open source and open access projects, and to work to shape our national policies to balance more appropriately the rights of creators and users of inventions and information.  Jefferson, ahead of his time, understood far better than virtually anyone else, the critical ties between invention and a healthy democracy.


End Cap


Graphic: Bill Womack, Helios

Thanks also to University of Virginia Press.

Research for this paper was supported by generous funding from the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies.



Lemelson Center for the Study of the History of Invention and Innovation

Technology and Democratic Values in the Early Republic





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