Thomas Jefferson Papers

Benjamin James Harris to Thomas Jefferson, 3 August 1812

From Benjamin James Harris

Richmond 3d August 1812


I herewith enclose you two drawings Shewing the principles of two different inventions that I consider to be entirely new, which I wish to submit to your examination—One of them is for the purpose of constructing Fire proofe Ceilings & the other for Filtering and Refrigerating water

I will thank you to investigate both of these principles and give me your opinion of them,—And as I wish to procure patents for them Should they be new, I will also thank you to inform me if you have ever known patents granted upon either principle.

I am just engaging in the manufacture of Cotton, and have for a long time been endeavoring to find some plan or principle upon which the Ceilings of rooms in large buildings1 can be constructed Fire proofe at any thing like a moderate expence.

The site that I have procured for this business is very inconveniently situated for good Drinking water, which circumstance has induced me to investigate the principles of Filteration & Refrigeration, And as I know you are a great friend to the Arts & Sciences and of domestic manufacture & improvements I beg leave to ask if you know of any better principles upon which my objects can be accomplished than those which I have submitted to your examination—and if you know of any, please to transmit me a discription of them

I am very respectfully Your most obd Sert

Ben James Harris

RC (DLC); at head of text: “Thomas Jefferson Esquire”; endorsed by TJ as received 6 Aug. 1812 and so recorded in SJL. Enclosures not found.

Benjamin James Harris (1774–1834), manufacturer and inventor, was born probably in Caroline County. His management of his father’s land after the latter’s death in 1794 occasioned a great deal of travel. Harris settled in Richmond, where he was an engineer for the Virginia and Kanawha Canal and later a tobacco and cotton manufacturer. The Henrico Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends expelled him in 1801 for joining the militia, in which he became a first lieutenant during the War of 1812. In 1804 Harris was acquitted of killing a slave, and a later antislavery source asserted that he escaped punishment for another, similar offense. Despite the loss of a warehouse due to fire in 1808, he prospered at first. Harris commissioned architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe to design a house in Richmond, called Clifton, which was built in 1807–08. In 1814 he purchased another Richmond estate, Belvidere, and joined other businessmen in laying out the residential town of Sydney there. Harris eventually failed financially and spent time in a succession of frontier towns. He invested in an unsuccessful building project in Saint Louis, 1817–18, sold his Belvidere property in 1824, and died in Florence, Alabama (Benjamin H. Branch Jr., The Branch, Harris, Jarvis, and Chinn Book: A Family Outline [1963], 141–2; Virginia Lee Hutcheson Davis, Tidewater Virginia Families [1989], 474; NcD: Harris Papers; Virginius Dabney, Richmond: The Story of a City [1976], 19–20, 94, 100; Michael W. Fazio and Patrick A. Snadon, The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe [2006], 635–40; Bryan Clark Green and others, Lost Virginia: Vanished Architecture of the Old Dominion [2001], 25, 50; Richmond Enquirer, 23 June 1804, 2 July 1813; “Testimony of Mr. William Poe” in Theodore Dwight Weld, comp., American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses [1839], 26; New York Mercantile Advertiser, 16 Mar. 1808; Richmond Enquirer, 3 Oct. 1823; James Oldham to TJ, 26 Dec. 1818).

On 17 May 1814 Harris was awarded a patent for his fire proofe ceilings (List of Patents description begins A List of Patents granted by the United States from April 10, 1790, to December 31, 1836, 1872 description ends , 138).

1Manuscript: “builings.”

Index Entries

  • Harris, Benjamin James; identified search
  • Harris, Benjamin James; inventions of search
  • Harris, Benjamin James; letters from search
  • inventions; fireproof ceiling search
  • inventions; water filtration system search
  • patents; of B. J. Harris search
  • Richmond, Va.; and B. J. Harris’s manufacturing business search