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