Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Robert Patterson, 24 April 1802

From Robert Patterson

Philada. April 24th. 1802


Agreeably to the directions in your favour of the 17th I am getting a stand made for the sextant, and the whole will be carefully packed up, and, by Mr. Roberts, sent on, by water, in the course of a few days.

With respect to the cypher, when applied to a single word or line, I would observe, that in strict conformity with the general system, each letter must, in this case, be considered as a column or vertical line; and, with its supplemy letters prefixed, must be transcribed into a horizontal line. Thus, if the word Louisiana were to be written in cypher, and the key

B e n j a m i n F r a n k l i n,
2 3 7 5 1 6 4 8 2 7 1 6 4 5 3 8

it would, with its supplementary letters prefixed, and a few adjoined, stand thus,—

2 ma o muo1
3 emikmio u
7 a a art
5 smandy s
1 dwyx l sso
6 ommix i ey
4 srr i mrs
8 mamreeie n
9 dy a stry

This, it must be confessed, appears somewhat unwieldly, and the great proportion of suppy2 to significant letters would considerably increase the labour of the copying clerks—But the remidy is easy, and that without deviating in the least from the general use of the cypher—it is only for the Principal to write the word or part to be cyphered in short horizontal lines, one under the other, each consisting of about 3, 4, or 5 letters, for then the copy or cypher will consist of as many lines only as the number of letters in each line of the original. For example, if we take the same word and key as before, the Principal would write it thus

L o u i s i a n a

and the copyist thus—




Here the labour of the copying clerk is sufficiently diminished while that of the Principal is no way increased, and yet the difficulty or impossibility of decyphering, without the key, completely preserved

Perhaps, Sir, I ought to apologize for having troubled you with what now appears to have been a premature acct. of Mr. Peale’s discovery—Upon enquiring of him to-day respecting the progress of his experiments, he candidly acknowledged that he had been deceived; and that in no instance had a single drop of fresh water been separated from salt, or pure sweet water from putrid; and that what had appeared to be separated by the filter was no other than what the sand & charcoal had previously imbibed; for on continuing the process he obtained nothing but the original water, clear and colourless indeed but without any alteration either in taste or smell—Obstinate Nature will not be coaxed into any deviation from her accustomed path!—

I am, Sir, with the most perfect respect & esteem Your obed. hum. Servt.

R. Patterson

RC (DLC); addressed: “Thomas Jefferson President of the United States city of Washington”; franked; postmarked 25 Apr.; endorsed by TJ as received 27 Apr. and so recorded in SJL.

The SEXTANT or Hadley’s quadrant suffered damage during shipment to Washington, and TJ had to send a piece of the instrument back to Philadelphia for repair (TJ to Thomas Whitney, 13 June 1802; Whitney to TJ, 2 July 1802).

HAVING TROUBLED YOU: Patterson to TJ, 12 Apr.

1Within this encipherment, letters that Patterson wrote very faintly to set them off are printed in italics.

2That is, “supplementary.”

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