Q: What Do Macaroni, a Wheel Cipher and the Presidency Have in Common?

A: Thomas Jefferson

That’s right! When he wasn’t drafting the Declaration of Independence, establishing the University of Virginia or serving as the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson  was also an inventor and an innovator.

Here’s a list of some of the his amazing inventions:

Courtesy of Monticello

The “Wheel Cipher”– Long before electronic encryption and account passwords, codes were needed to make sure messages stayed safe. Jefferson’s device consisted of twenty six letters inscribed on cylindrical wooden pieces threaded together onto an iron spindle. The pieces with the letters could be rearranged to send coded messages that could be easily deciphered with the right key.

Courtesy Agricultural History Museum

Iron Plow – Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello, was one of the largest in Virginia but his fields were prone to erosion because of the of the Virginia climate and the rolling hills. The plows of his day were made from wood and could only partially dig into the soil. Jefferson needed a plow that could dig up to three inches deeper to facilitate hillside planting. Together with his his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, he created an iron and moldboard plow that could create furrows down hillsides. Iron plows were also more durable.

Courtesy of Monticello

“Macaroni Machine” – Following his travels to Europe, Jefferson developed a passion for fine wine and European cuisine. One of his favorite foods was macaroni.  Jefferson created the “macaroni machine” which forced the pasta dough through six small holes so that it could have that classic elbow bend thus allowing his personal chef to create the pasta dish in less time. Side note, Jefferson also enjoyed adding various cheeses to traditional dishes, often melting it into a type of sauce and many food historians credit Jefferson with the invention of macaroni and cheese!

Swivel Chair – There is some dispute over this one, but many historians credit Jefferson with the invention of this office staple. While in Philadelphia, Jefferson purchased a simple English-style Windsor chair from a local cabinet maker. Then Jefferson set about modifying the chair so that the top and bottom parts were connected by a central iron spindle-enabling the seat to swivel. Legend has it that Jefferson drafted the United States Declaration of Independence in 1776 in his swivel chair. Jefferson later had the invention sent to his Virginia plantation where he later built a “writing paddle” onto its side in 1791. Since 1836, the chair has been in the possession of the American Philosophical Society located in Philadelphia.

Devices Jefferson Improved Upon:

Courtesy of Monticello

The Polygraph Duplicator  – Not the kind we think of today for measuring the veracity of a suspect’s testimony, but instead a copy machine. Long before carbon paper, this was a machine used to copy letters by imitating the movements of the writer’s hand. It was originally invented by the Englishman John Isaac Hawkins, who later sold the rights to produce and market the device in America to Charles Willson Peale. Jefferson purchased many versions of the Polygraph from Peale, several of which were developed after recommendations for improvements by Jefferson himself. Jefferson called the device,”the finest invention of the present age.”

Courtesy of Monticello

“Dumb Waiter” – During a trip to a Parisian cafe, Jefferson observed the staff using a mechanical dumb waiter. Once he returned to Monticello, he drew designs and adapted the device to accommodate wine bottles. Servants controlled the dumbwaiter by using a pulley system that would safely deliver the beverage from the kitchen to his drawing room while entertaining. Jefferson even devised an inconspicuous place for his creation, hiding it in the side of a fireplace inside his Virginia plantation house.

Although he did not invent crop rotations, Jefferson improved many crop rotation methods, farming implements, and developed over 300 types of hybrid vegetation at Monticello.  He also invented a rotating book stand, a folding ladder, the lazy Susan and a seven-day clock . Jefferson thought of furnishings as a waste of space. His dining room table was designed to be fold away when not in use, while beds were often positioned in alcoves.

Thomas Jefferson commented on his love for science, saying “Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight.” Despite his fascination with science, technology and innovation, Jefferson never filed for a patent. Jefferson, a strong proponent of equality among all people, was not sure if it was fair or even constitutional to grant what was essentially a monopoly to an inventor, who would then be able to grant the use of his idea only to those who could afford it.

Which Jeffersonian invention or innovation surprised you the most?