Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Richard Robotham, 11 June 1801

From Richard Robotham

Hudson June 11th 1801


if my Boldness needs any apolagy I hope this may be Soficint that is, my ardent desire to do all the good I Can—

I herewith send you th[ree?] papers in Which are four pieces describeing improve[ments of] my own invention first a ventilator or air pump [this?] air pump is in use in a distilerry in this City and proves the principle to be good for it will ventilate a Cerstern in a few minuetes that is full of Bad air wherein a Candle will not burn So that a man may desend without danger and by keeping the Mechiene at work he feels a Constant Streeme of fresh air desend, the Cost of this Mechiene was Nineteen Shilings or two dollars and thirty-Seven and a half Cents

the other improvements may not be verry intresting therefore I will not troble you with any observations respecting them

With the greatest Respect and obbedence &cc

Richard Robotham

RC (DLC); torn; at head of text: “To Thomas Jefferson President of the United States”; endorsed by TJ as received 18 June and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures not found.

Richard Robotham (ca. 1758–1817), a native of Nottinghamshire, England, was an inventor in Hudson, New York. Although located well up the Hudson River, the town of that name was a home port for whalers and seal hunters in the latter part of the eighteenth century and a processing center for oil from sperm whales and elephant seals. Robotham received two patents, for processes of candle manufacturing in 1794 and purification of spermaceti oil in 1799, that were related to that industry. He also took out patents on a composition material for flooring and a machine for ruling paper. By 1805 he developed a design for arched bridges made of pine boards and built at least two of the bridges on turnpikes. He later was an inspector of the Hudson Aqueduct Company and served on a committee to administer a public bathhouse. Robotham also invested in real estate. Several times beginning in 1810 he sought election as an overseer of roads on the Federalist ticket (Hudson Northern Whig, 1810 Jan., 29 Mch. 1810, 30 Mch., 13 Apr. 1812, 9 Jan., 17 Sep. 1816, 9 Sep. 1817; Hudson Balance, 2, 30 Mch. 1802, 20 May 1806, 5 Apr. 1808; Stephen B. Miller, Historical Sketches of Hudson [Hudson, N.Y., 1862], 6, 35–6; List of Patents, 8, 9, 20, 26).

The announcement of a $100 prize by the American Philosophical Society for “the most simple, convenient & effective method of ventilating a ship at sea, without manual labour” prompted Robotham to design his ventilator. In March 1801, Robotham addressed a letter “To the Presedent of the Philosophcal Society Philidelphia” that TJ passed along to the society without endorsing it or recording it in SJL. In that letter, Robotham suggested that one might use ductwork and a bellows to pump foul air from the lowest part of a ship’s hold, but he did not present a detailed plan for a ventilator and evidently had not tried the method himself. He also in the same letter responded to another premium that the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends offered, $35 for “the cheapest & most effectual method of rendering Common Oil fit to be burned in the Argand-lamp.” Again, Robotham’s comments were brief, consisting primarily of a reference to his 1799 patent for the purification of spermaceti and “Sea-Elephant” oil by alkali. In a meeting held on 3 Apr. 1801, the society formally received the communication from Robotham and passed it along to a committee, but apparently nothing came of it. The competitions for those premiums did not close until 1 Apr. 1802, and the society may not have deemed Robotham’s short, hypothetical description of a ventilating system to be a formal entry for the prize. In 1802 the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends received at least three entries for the competition on ship ventilation, but the committee evaluating them did not report until February 1803 (RC in PPAmP, undated but postmarked New York, 23 Mch., stamped, endorsed for the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends ; APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , Proceedings, 22, pt. 3 [1884], 306, 310, 321, 323, 329, 333). Robotham went forward with the creation of a ventilator in 1801. His design, which used a bellows as he had suggested in his letter to the APS description begins American Philosophical Society description ends , was operated by a person working a lever and would not have met the criterion of a ventilator that did not require manual effort. On 10 Oct. 1801, Robotham received a patent on his “air pump ventilator for ships, mines, &c.”, and he promoted the device, which he licensed for a fee, through newspaper advertisements, a broadside, and published letters of endorsement (Richard Robotham, “Description of the Air-Pump Ventilator, for the ventilating of Ships, Mines, Prisons, Hospitals, etc.,” printed broadside, [Hudson, N.Y., 1801; Shaw-Shoe-maker, No. 1260]; Hudson Balance, 22 Oct., 19, 26 Nov. 1801, 4 May, 1 June, 14 Dec. 1802, 28 May 1811; Alexandria Advertiser, 6 Nov. 1801, 8 June 1802; Boston Gazetteer, 23 Nov. 1803; List of Patents, 26).

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