Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site


A lover of labor-saving devices and other doodads

`I THINK it's a safe bet," Monticello's Daniel Jordan says, "if Jefferson were alive today he would have had one of the first lap-top computers in this part of the country." In addition to the power of his political ideals, what distinguishes Jefferson from mere mortals is the inexhaustibility of his intellect combined with the range of his disciplined curiosity. Even the word "technological" probably would have intrigued him.

Historians, convinced of his shyness, dwell on his love of documentation, how his record-keeping still helps guide efforts to understand him and his efforts to refine Monticello. He loved gadgets, labor-saving devices, and new applications for existing ideas. He synthesized, projected, and correlated old and new quite unlike any man in the last 200 years.

About these ads

On a tour through Monticello, visitors can pause in his bedroom next to his study. At the foot of his bed is a French clock on a shelf. Jefferson bragged that he never saw morning sunlight touch the clock because he was up so early. His work clothes were in a revolving closet near the bed. Every morning he bathed his feet in a pan of cold water and always recorded the outside temperature.

On a desk in the study is his version of the pantograph, renamed a polygraph, which is a two-pen letter-copying device. To improve the flow of the writing, Jefferson added steel-tipped pens instead of the old quill ones.

"He was a passionate consumer," says Susan Stein, Monticello's curator and author of "The Worlds of Thomas Jefferson at Monticello" (Harry N. Abrams, 472 pp.). "Monticello was a remote place, far from the mercantile life of cities. When he was in Philadelphia, Paris, or New York, he bought as if he would never go back there. Monticello is a remarkable mix of Virginia, Parisian, and New York furniture, all inhabiting an amazing neoclassical space." When he returned from Paris after five years as minister,

he brought 86 crates of art and goods with him.

"He believed in a balanced lifestyle," Mr. Jordan says, "a wholistic approach that said you had to exercise, eat right, stimulate the brain, but you had to relax, too."

Jordan cites a letter Jefferson wrote in the 1770s soliciting workers from Italy. "Jefferson asked for a stonemason who could play the bassoon, or a carpenter who could play the clarinet," Jordan says. "Jefferson wanted to work hard all day and then gather together at night and have musical events."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.