Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Joseph Willard, 16 January 1790

From Joseph Willard

Cambridge January 16. 1790.


I am much obliged to you for your letter of March 24. 1789, and the interesting communications contained in it. I observe, that among other things, you mention Mr. Rumsey’s Steam Boat. I would beg leave to acquaint you, that this is a subject, which, a Gentleman among us has, for some time past, paid much attention to; and it appears, that he has made great improvements in the Boiler, so that it goes far beyond Mr. Rumsey’s. He has also attended to other Machines, and has improved the Still, in several respects. He has projected a method for keeping Clocks constantly wound up, by the contraction of metals, which, it appears in theory, may give the Chronometer a continual motion.

The Gentleman’s name, who has made these improvements, is Read. He had his education in the University in this place, and took his Degrees in the years 1781 and 1784, and is an ingenious and worthy man. He is going to New York, with a view of applying to the Congress for a Patent, to secure to him the benefits arising from any improvements he may have made.

Mr. Read has mentioned to me his desire that you should examine his plans. I entirely approve of his wishes, being fully persuaded, that no Gentleman in this country is more capable of determining the merit of his improvements, and how far they may be deserving of public encouragement. I therefore beg leave, Sir, to introduce Mr. Read to you, and at the same time to request you, if your important concerns will permit, to examine his plans, and give him such advice, as may appear to you expedient. I should not, Sir, take this liberty, were I not certain, that you are warmly engaged in promoting every thing which may be of utility to mankind, and that you wish, in a particular manner, to encourage ingenuity and industry in your countrymen.

I take the opportunity, by Mr. Read, of sending you a certificate of your election into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Members were happy, Sir, in having the opportunity of enrolling in their Catalogue the name of a Gentleman so eminent in the philosophic world; and they hope, the election will not be unacceptable to you. I have the honor of being, with the highest esteem and respect, Sir, Your Excellency’s most humble and obedient servant,

Joseph Willard

RC (CSmH); endorsed as received 22 Mch. 1790 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: Certificate of election of TJ to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, dated 29 May 1787 and signed by James Bowdoin, president, and Joseph Willard, vice president, with attestations by Willard and Caleb Gannett, secretaries (MHi).

Nathan Read (1759–1849), a minor New England inventor, presented his petition to Congress for a patent on his inventions on 8 Feb. 1790, some time before TJ received the present letter: these included plans for both a steamboat and steam road carriage. The latter was ridiculed to such an extent that he abandoned it and the former was based on a paddle-wheel arrangement not original with him, in consequence of which he presented a new petition on 1 Jan. 1791 and seven months later was granted letters patent for “a portable multitubular boiler, an improved double-acting steam engine, and a chain wheel method of propelling boats” (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, N.Y., 1928–1936 description ends ). See TJ to Willard, 1 Apr. 1790 and Lear to TJ, 30 Aug. 1791.

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