There is no “Maker in Chief” in the U.S. Constitution, but at least one president, Thomas Jefferson, certainly deserves that title.
Jefferson is most famous for drafting the Declaration of Independence and serving as the third president of the United States. It’s less well known that he was also an experienced architect, surveyor, locksmith, and amateur scientist. And he was an innovator who made improvements in the design of clocks, instruments, and the polygraph copying machines that duplicated his letters as he wrote them.
Visitors to Monticello, Jefferson’s mountaintop home near Charlottesville, Virginia, can quickly become acquainted with Jefferson’s maker side. Walking toward the front porch, you can see the entire house and its famous dome — all designed by Jefferson. “Architecture is my delight,” he told a visitor, “and putting up and pulling down one of my favorite amusements.”
The Wind Vane
Another clue at Monticello is the large weather vane atop the front porch. The vane’s shaft extends through the roof of the porch to the ceiling, where it is attached to a pointer that indicates the direction of the wind on a compass rose. Jefferson and his family could check the wind direction simply by looking through one of the nearby windows.
The Great Clock
Above the front entrance is another Jefferson innovation, his double-sided Great Clock. The clock’s movement and its dial indicating hours, minutes, and seconds are installed in a wood frame mounted inside the house, over the entrance door. A second dial that indicates the hour is mounted outside above the door.
The Great Clock was built to Jefferson’s specifications by Philadelphia clockmaker Leslie & Price in 1793 and installed at Monticello in 1804. Its mechanism is powered by six cannonball-like weights suspended by a rope and pulley along the corner of the right side of the entrance hall. The days Sunday through Thursday are marked on the wall adjacent to the weights; as the weights descend, the topmost weight indicates the day of the week. Eventually, the weights drop through a circular hole in the floor to the basement, where Friday and Saturday are marked on the wall.
A Chinese gong indicates each hour. The gong’s striking mechanism is powered by a set of eight weights suspended by a rope and pulley along the corner of the left side of the entrance door.
Each Sunday, Jefferson climbed a folding ladder to wind the clock. When not in use, one side of the ladder was pushed up to merge it with the other side. The folding ladder was built in Monticello’s wood shop, known as the joinery.
Jefferson’s obsession with accurate timekeeping was closely related to his interest in astronomy and telescopes, several of which he purchased over the years. He described astronomy as “the most sublime of all the sciences.”
Astronomy also served a practical purpose, for Jefferson was committed to measuring the geographic coordinates of Monticello as accurately as possible. With help from President James Madison — who lived nearby and often spent time at Monticello — Jefferson measured the timing of the annular solar eclipse of 1811. The times he and Madison measured were used by amateur eclipse expert William Lambert to calculate the longitude of Monticello as –78.50°, which is very close to Google Earth’s –78.45°.
The Spherical Sundial
During Jefferson’s time, the accuracy of clocks depended on a high-resolution sundial. Jefferson had probably seen spherical sundials in Europe, and he designed one for Monticello that was a 10½-inch sphere made from carefully inscribed locust wood fitted with a movable sundial blade. The spherical sundial was built in the joinery to his exact specifications. The fate of the original is unknown, but the Thomas Jefferson Foundation commissioned a replica based on Jefferson’s detailed design. It is now installed at Monticello near where the original stood.
The Open-Source Plow
Perhaps the most down-to-earth of Jefferson’s innovations was his design of an improved moldboard for plows. The moldboard is the section of the plow that lifts and turns the soil cut by the plow’s leading edge. Jefferson claimed his moldboard was more efficient than previous designs. He did not apply for patent protection for his design. Instead, he sent models of his moldboard design to others along with details about its design and construction.
While Jefferson was the architect of Monticello and the designer of many of its clocks, instruments, and mechanical contrivances, he did not personally build all of these things. But this does not disqualify him from being a hands-on maker. Jefferson’s papers and correspondence mention his tools and that he took some of them to Paris when he served as U.S. minister to France from 1785 to 1789. Several of Jefferson’s contemporaries wrote about his many personal tools, including Isaac Granger, who was born into slavery at Monticello and whom Jefferson took to Philadelphia, where he learned to be a tinsmith. When interviewed by the Rev. Charles Campbell in 1847, Granger recalled that, “My Old Master was neat a hand as ever you see to make keys and locks and small chains, iron, and brass. He kept all kind of blacksmith and carpenter tools in a great case with shelves to it in his library.”
While addressing a dinner to honor Nobel Prize winners from the Western Hemisphere on April 23, 1962, President John Kennedy said, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” If President Jefferson were alive today, we’d like to think he’d be among the many Make: magazine readers.