Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Nathan Read, 8 January 1791

From Nathan Read

Salem Jany. 8th. 1791.


Having improved some of the machines, for which, last winter, I solicited a Patent, and desirous, after farther improvement, of communicating others to the public; also informed that some of my supposed improvements in the distillery particularly the application of the Syphon, had been suggested several years since, to the late President of the American Academy; and not wishing for an exclusive privilege to any improvement that is not new; I must request your Excellency to solicit the Honorable Board to grant me leave to withdraw my former petitions, paying all charges that have arisen, and to present1 the inclosed petition in which I have stated, agreable to the Order of the Honorable Board the nature and extent of the discoveries therein mentioned. I forwared last week to Mr. Remsen Models of several machines, drafts and descriptions of which are inclosed. The model of the Boiler which I have forwared is an improvement upon one of those I exhibited last winter. The model I refer to consists of several annular vessels placed one above another within the furnace in such a manner as to expose a very large surface directly to the fire. For annular vessels, placed in a horizontal position, I have substituted circular tubes, placed in a vertical position, within the furnace which is formed by the Boiler itself in the same manner as the other was. In the last boiler which is stronger, more simple and elegant in its construction I have paid less regard to the evaporating surface than in either of the others; finding by experiment, that the principle of evaporation suggested by your Excellency is perfectly just when applied to close vessels. I am sensible that a pipe was several years since, made use of by Mr. Rumsey for generating steam and also perceive, from the Philosophical Transactions that a tube, in the form of the worm of a Still, was used upwards of twenty years ago for the same purpose, but do not know that any other person but myself hath ever constructed a tubular Boiler, formed in such a manner as to constitute of itself a compleat furnace. It is about three years since I first projected a boiler upon this plan. How far my improvements merit an exclusive privilege the Honorable Board will judge. Should a Patent be granted, I request it may be delivered to Benja. Goodhue Esqr. who will pay Mr. Remsen all charges that have arisen or may arise in consequence of my applications. I have requested Mr. Remsen, by permission of the Honorable Board to inclose me my former petitions, and to deliver to my order several models which have too long encumbered your Office. I am with the sincerest respect your Excellency’s most obedient servant

Nathan Read

FC (MSaE: Read Papers); at foot of text: “His Excellency Gov. Jefferson.” Enclosures: (1) Petition of Read to the Patent Board, Salem, 1 Jan. 1791, describing and requesting patents for four inventions: a method of distilling at reduced labor and expense that freed the resulting spirits from the noxious metallic taint found in those produced in the common way; a more efficient, compact, and portable steam boiler; a more portable steam cylinder capable of operating in a horizontal position; and a chain wheel or rowing machine operating on the principle of the chain pump and capable of impelling steamboats through the water with great speed; and requesting permission to withdraw his former petitions upon paying any fees that had already arisen (FC in same; FC in same, undated and unsigned). (2) Read’s “Specification of an Improvement in the Art of Distillation,” with drawings and explanatory key, “Specification of an Improved Steam Boiler,” “Specification of a chain Wheel, or Rowing Machine for Impelling boats or vessels thro’ the water,” and “Specification of an Improved Steam Cylinder, advantageously constructed to work in an horizontal position,” with drawings (FCs in same, undated; Dfts in same, undated, consisting of last two specifications only; with accompanying draft certifications prepared for Read by Henry Remsen on 23 Apr. 1791 containing subjoined instructions for filing the specifications and Read’s fair copies of the certifications).

Nathan Read (1759–1849), a Harvard graduate and apothecary in Salem, Massachusetts, was unable to raise funds to build a steamboat and turned to farming and iron manufacturing, later serving in the United States House of Representatives from 1800 to 1803 (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; David Read, Nathan Read: His Invention of the Multi-Tubular Boiler and Portable High-Pressure Engine … [New York, 1870]).

Read had Solicited patents from Congress for a variety of inventions in a petition read by the House of Representatives on 8 Feb. 1790, and evidently discussed his inventions with TJ when he delivered a letter of introduction on 22 Mch. (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, Washington, D.C., Gales & Seaton, 1826, 9 vols. description ends , i, 154; Joseph Willard to TJ, 16 Jan. 1790, and note; TJ to Willard, 1 Apr. 1790, and note). After statutory authority to grant patents was transferred to the Patent Board, Read sent his Former petitions of 14 and 23 Apr. 1790 to that body, with the earlier one seeking patents for the distilling apparatus, steam boiler, and steam cylinder described above and the later one asking for exclusive rights to the chain wheel as well as ideas for a “new and simple method of moving land carriages by the power of steam, and also of directing them principally by the same agent” and a way to use the temperature-induced contraction and expansion of metals to build self-winding timepieces and scientific apparatus (FCs and Dfts in MSaE: Read Papers). Read subsequently abandoned his efforts to patent the latter two inventions (Henry Remsen to Read, 5 Feb. 1791, and Read to Remsen, 10 May 1791, same). On 26 Aug. 1791 he was awarded one patent for his distilling improvements and another for his steam boiler, steam cylinder, and chain wheel (Trs in same, with Washington as signatory and TJ as countersignatory; List of Patents description begins A List of Patents granted by the United States from April 10, 1790, to December 31, 1836, Washington, D.C., 1872 description ends , 5).

James Bowdoin was the Late President of the American academy of Arts and Sciences. The reference to the Philosophical transactions is probably to Peter Woulfe, “Experiments on the Distillation of Acids, volatile Alkalies, &c. shewing how they may be condensed without Loss, and how thereby we may avoid disagreeable and noxious Fumes,” Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions, lvii (1767), 517–36.

1Manuscript: “prevent.”

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