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Most of us know Thomas Jefferson as the man who authored the Declaration of Independence, the United States' first Secretary of State, the third U.S. President, and founder of the University of Virginia. But Jefferson was also an inventor, and his accomplishments included several in this field, including his great influence in the area of patent law.

Jefferson One of ten children, Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743, in Albemarle County, Virginia. He became a lawyer in Virginia, then a member of the Continental Congress, and at age 33, he authored the Declaration of Independence. He also married and built a home in Virginia called Monticello.

Jefferson was named Secretary of State under President George Washington in 1790. That year, the United States' first Patent Act was drafted to create a patent system similar to the one used in Britain at the time. Jefferson, then Secretary of State, led a group working on this project and created guidelines for obtaining patents, as well as a review system for those who would grant them to the inventors. The laws that survive today are based on the ideas Jefferson put forth during his tenure.

Jefferson served as Vice President under John Adams, and he was elected the third president of the United States in 1801. Throughout his years in service to the nation he maintained a keen interest in new technology. He created a new mould board, the front part of a plow that lifts and turns sod, which was more efficient than earlier models. He also developed a wheel cipher that could be used to scramble and unscramble letters to code messages. And, he designed his own sundial.

Jefferson created a time keeping device, now known as the Great Clock, which adorned the entrance hall at Monticello. The clock was made using cannonballs that hung on either side of the doorway, powered by gravity, and the time was read by looking at where the cannonballs hit markings on the wall. The Great Clock was connected to a large copper gong on the roof. Jefferson also invented a folding ladder for repairs to the clock, which was later adopted for use in pruning trees and for retrieving books in libraries.

As Jefferson traveled often, he was inspired to create a portable copying press, a compact variation on the model invented earlier by James Watt. He also created a lap desk that held all the tools and personal belongings he needed on a given day away from the office.

Additional inventions credited to Jefferson are a macaroni machine, a revolving chair with a leg rest and writing arm, and new types of iron plows especially for hillside plowing. He also designed beds for his home that were built into alcoves on webs of rope hung from hooks, and automatic doors for his parlor. He created other devices for use in his home as well, including a revolving book stand with adjustable book rests and mechanical dumb waiters that allowed him to pull wine up to the dining room from the cellar.

After serving two terms as U.S. President during which he completed the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson spent the final years of his life at Monticello, farming and working on the founding of the University of Virginia. The institution opened its doors in 1825. Jefferson died the following year.

[August 2003]

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