Thomas Jefferson Papers
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To Thomas Jefferson from Robert R. Livingston, 10 December 1790

From Robert R. Livingston

New York 10th. Decr 1790

Dear Sir

The enclosed was written long since and accidentaly detained at New York. I send it now to shew that I have not been inattentive to the letter you favoured me with and somewhat to shorten what I am now to tell you of the result of the experiment you encouraged me to make. In order to gain room for affixing the hollow cylinder or tub to the spindle of the mill it was necessary to make a new cog wheel and lanthorne this was a work of some expence and considerable time in the country where I could get but one mill wright and he conceived that I was doing a very foolish piece of work, and felt a reluctance in being so ill employed.

I had calculated upon having the smallest tub1 three feet every way clear of the wood, my mill wright however not comprehending that the small quantity of water which would then be in the larger tub2 could have much effect in floating the stones resolved to serve me against my will by so reducing the size of the cylinder as to admit more water. As he did not finish till the day I was to embark for New York it was too late to get it altered. The tub affixed was two feet eight inches below three feet above and two feet ten inches deep. Two inches were above the water. The Millstones was 4 feet six inches and weighed as near as I could compute between twelve and thirteen hundred weight. I first graduated the gate, and set the mill in motion with a small force of water, without puting any water in the outside vessel, it ground ½ a bushel of rice in twenty four minutes. Water was then put in the outer tub and the mill being set in motion with the same force of water, it ground ½ a bushel of rice in 18 minutes. Here was a clear saving of one quarter but as the water wheels and cog wheels were very large and heavy I found the friction on the gudgeons to be some thing more than one fourth of the force then applied, but stating it at one fourth as this was equal on both, the saving in the friction of the stones and spindle will be about one third. If in addition to this the gudgeons should also be floated by hollow cylinders affixed to each end of the shaft (the friction of which may by this means be reduced almost to nothing, especialy if a horizontal wheel should be used) the difference will be still more considerable. My mill did not permit me (on account of the smallness of the tub) to ascertain how much lighter the pressure might have been made without injuring the flower. It had however this advantage, the meal came out perfectly cool and tho the stones were let down so as to run upon each other, which would have spoiled the meal in any other mill, two millers, both prejudiced against the scheme, declared it to be perfectly good and light.3

This experiment serves to account for what has often perplexed me. Two mills of the same construction driven by the same force of water will frequently differ from each other both in the quantity and quality of the flours they make in a given time. This I conceive to be owing to the greater or less spring in the bridge tree, but as this is uncertain and incapable of being reduced to any rule I have contrived a mode of applying my principles to it in such a manner as to be useful to mills already erected without altering a single wheel.4

Let two thick planks be joined together by leather, elastic yarn or in any other way which will make them water tight and suffer them to play half an inch. In the upper board insert a tube whose length shall be proportioned to the size of the board and the weight of the stone, place this upon the bridge tree of the mill, and let the spindle run on its pivot in the upper board: by filling this tube with more or less water that degree of weight which is calculated to make the best flower will be obtained, and much water be saved, for tho’ the friction on the spindle will not be less, yet that on the face of the stones, which is most important, will be greatly diminished. I regret that I had it not in my power to make farther experiments with my mill from the delay in finishing it and the necessity I was under of embarking the river being full of ice and my family on board waiting for me.—I must tell you however that they are all in arms against me and that without your interposition I do not know how I shall compose them. They alledge that my politicks have half ruined them, diminished my fortune, wasted my time and occasioned the loss of my house by fire and that now my mechanicks will render water equally injurious to them and distroy our mills which stand on large streams by giving an additional value to others in this neighbourhood, which would not before come in competition with them.5 I have promised by means of a patent to make them some compensation and as I am now satisfied that the invention is both new and useful; I take the liberty to tax your friendship to have one expedited for me as the basis for an application abroad in behalf of a friend who is very apprehensive (as the thing is now well known and talked of) that some other person may take advantage of any delay and avail himself of my labours.6 I do myself the honor to enclose an official application. The thing is so entirely simple that I have not thought model necessary, a slight drawing will make it sufficiently intelligible. I ought to ask your pardon for the lenght of this Letter, but I well know that whatever comes to you in the shape of an useful improvement will meet with, tho’ it should be too imperfect to reward your attention. I have the honor to be Sir with the highest esteem & respect Your Most obt hum: Servt,

R R Livingston

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ as received 15 Dec. 1790 and so recorded in SJL. Dft (NHi); with minor variations in phraseology in addition to those differences noted below. Enclosures: (1) Livingston to TJ, 1 Oct. 1790. (2) The enclosed “official application” for a patent has not been found. TJ recorded both enclosures in SJL as received the same day, the second as being dated at New York 9 Dec. 1790 and as being addressed “to board of arts.”

On Livingston’s idea of reducing friction in grist and other mills, see his letters to TJ of 1 Aug. and 1 Oct. 1790, together with TJ’s reply to the first of 8 Aug. 1790. The draft of a letter from Livingston to TJ, undated but written at Clermont probably late in Oct. or early Nov. 1790, is related to this correspondence. No recipient’s copy of it has been found and none is recorded in SJL. The letter, therefore, was probably never sent. It reads as follows: “Fearing that in consequence of the removal of Congress I shall not have the pleasure of finding you at New York on my return to it I take this meathod to communicate an Idea which I had intended to have made the subject of a conversation when we met in the hope that you may find leisure to give me your sentiments about it and if it shall seem new to you and as free from objections as it appears to me encourage me to proceed in trying its success or if any objections strike you that you will communicate them to me that I may either relinquish my scheme or improve it from your hints.—The application of water to mills appear to me extreamly imperfect. In the overshot mill which is the best from the line of its direction and the short time that it remains in the basket a very considerable part of the force is lost. In Barkers mill this defect is in some sort remedied but not wholly. This mill even with Rumseys improvement has one defect which will forever render it useless. The weight of the Stones with all the machinery of the mill resting upon the end of the spindle must alway wear it away if sharp and have a considerable degree of friction to over come besides that the mill will want the spring necessary to making light flower and from the position of the weight in the arms will have a little vibratory motion that will deaden this meal in grinding and for these reasons I suppose has never gone into use. To remedy these defects in both mills I would propose 1st. That the wheel should be a perpendicular cylinder whose hight should be proportioned to the head of water that round this on its circumference should be a set number of spiral chanels about 3 inches by two at the top and contracted to one inch at the bottom out of which the water should issue as in Barkers mill. The water should stand in penstock over it and the wheel be so nicely fitted to it as that no water should escape at the sides. The wheel would have the following advantages 1st. by shutting or opening any number of the spiral chanel no more water need be applied than is sufficient to give the force required. 2d. The water acting upon the wheel in its whole passage none of its force could be lost as in the overshot wheel while the length of time that it is confined in the wheel will add to its centifugal force and expel it from the appertures with more velocity than from Barkers mill over which it would also have the advantage of a regular motion by the uniform distribution of the weight. But what I consider as the greatest improvement and which may be applied to Barkers mill or even to those of common construction is the mode in which I would propose to take of[f] the whole friction except that which arose from the Vibration of the […] and the rubing of the stones on each other. I would place at the bottom of and so fixed with the spindle on which the whole machinery rests as to turn with a strong hollow cylindrical box whose solid contents should be two feet or more if necessary. Thro this the spindle should pass into an open vessel in which should be placed the shel on which the spindle turns. This vessel should be so large as not to [exceed] the inner one by ¼ of an inch at the bottom and round the sides. This vessel should be filled with quick silver which would lessen the weight of the mill stones &c. in proportion to the size of the box. If as is proposed it contains two solid feet the weight would be reduced 1894 lb. the whole weight of a very large mill stone and this water wheel &c. not being above 2200 so there would indeed be some friction from the mercury but this would I conceive be very triffling as the box need not be above a sixth part of the diam[et]er of the wheel so that its motion would not be rapid. I am not Mathe[mati]cian enough to tell whether this diminution of the weight would greatly lessen the force of the stones, but I should presume not from the manner in which grain is ground. I am satisfied however that the flower made by rubing and without much pressing would be lighter and finer than if it was crushed between two heavy mill stones” (Dft in NHi; punctuation supplied in some instances for the sake of clarity).

Barkers Mill: A very simple reaction-type water turbine having a vertical shaft with two horizontal arms, at the ends of which are tangential orifices facing in opposite directions so that when water under pressure is introduced into the shaft, a torque is produced by the reaction of its discharge from the orifices. Such relatively inefficient turbines were commonly used for very light powers such as required by the carriage return system of up-and-down sawmills and driving small grist mills (communication from Robert M. Vogel, Smithsonian Institution, 27 Mch. 1964). See also William Waring, “Investigation of the Power of Dr. Barker’s Mill, as improved by James Rumsey,” Am. Phil. Soc., Trans., iii (1793), 185–93, and Barnes Riznik, “The Introduction of the Tub Wheel and Water Turbine in New England, 1790–1840,” Technology and Culture, x (1969), 199–201.

A memorandum in Remsen’s hand in DLC: TJ Papers, 59: 10189, undated, reads as follows: “Mr. Chancellor Livingston of New York, to be informed in answer to his application, that he must furnish a model of his improvements, and a more ample specification than that accompanying his letter. That specification is merely an explanation of the drawings.—The drawings themselves should be more complete.” See TJ to Livingston, 4 Feb. 1791, in which the substance of this memorandum is incorporated.

1Dft reads: “inner tub.”

2Dft reads: “outer tub.”

3Dft reads: “… advantage that tho’ two millers were present both prejudiced against the scheme they could not with all their efforts tho’ the stones were so let down as to run upon each other spoil or deaden the flow’r.”

4Dft reads: “… I have thought of a way of giving the benefit of my tub mill (except that which arises from taking of the friction on the spindle) to any mill without altering the wheels.”

5Dft reads: “… injurious to me and them and occasion the destruction of our mills as we possess no less than 8 upon never failing rivers in the neighbourhood of others on small streams whose value will (as they suppose) be increased at our expence.”

6Except for complimentary close, Dft concludes with the following: “… I have promised by means of a patent to make them some compensation, and accordingly inclose an application for that purpose which you will do me the favor to promote principally as I wish to make it the basis of an application in behalf of a relation in Europe which I have an opportunity of doing by means of a Gentleman who is going shortly. I flatter myself that you should not find it inconvenient to expedite the patent as I run some risk of be[ing] anticipated by some of the many people who have examined the mill I have erected. I have every reason to believe upon the most diligent search that the Idea I have stated is entirely new.”

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