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William Thornton to Thomas Jefferson, 20 January 1812

From William Thornton

City of Washington Jany 20th 1812–

Dear Sir

I have this Day had the honor of your Letter of the 14th Inst: enquiring into the goodness of the Domestic Spinner by Ebenezer Hearrick. Having been very much confined by sickness I sent to the office for the Drawing of Hearrick’s machine. It may possibly answer, but I think it cannot spin fast the length of the thread every motion being very short. It consists of a Frame, a principal Band wheel, a revolving Cylinder & six spindles, a lathe which holds the Spindles—levers which raise the horizontal Bars—Pulleys or wheels round which pass the Cords fastened to the Levers—Weights and an Arm that carries the threads from the points of the Spindles downwards. I do not perfectly understand its operation & fear its want of efficiency. I think it is a good deal like the spinning Billy. There is a spinning machine in the office invented by mr Oliver Barrett of New York State, which is more like the Spinning Jenny, but which will also rove the wool & spin 12 threads. It may be made for about $25, & does excellent work. I think very highly of the machine & the Inventor told me he would sell the different Counties of Virginia for $500 each. He charges the patent right of each machine $20—so that it would be the cheapest for several Individuals to join, put in $50 each & purchase the County. If a purchase be made I could get a machine executed here very well as a model & it could be sent for by a single Horse Cart, for it is light. Judge Cranch gave $50 for one of 12 Spindles, & is so much pleased with it that he is going to establish a manufactory of Cloths, & to use this machine. It will rove as much in one Day as will keep the Spinner three Days in spinning it; & of any fineness. It is such a machine as will render our merino wool of great value. Its very great simplicity will prevent it from going out of order, & it may be made to spin 20 threads as well as 12.—In New York State it may be made well at the rate of 200 Dolls a Dozen without the Spindles wch cost 25 Cents each; & the rest of the iron work which cost abt 5 Dolls more, making the whole about 25 Dolls for a 12 Spindled machine: but here, where labour is high a machine would cost between 30 & 40.—Lame or old negroes would spin very well with it. The wool requires carding, but one Carding machine erected at your mills would serve a whole neighbourhood, & I could engage you a Carding machine.—The price I have by enquiry found, for one for the finest as well as coarsest wool is about $400.—If the Gentlemen of your County would incline to buy the patent right, & have a machine made as a Pattern it might afterwards be made very cheap, & as I think Patents will be renewable it will be still cheaper by the renewal.—I think you have sketched a very good Card, but it will require to be further thought of to perfect it.—I have requested my respected Friend mr Fairfax to give you also his opinion. He went to my office, examined both very particularly and will subjoin his Opinion.—

I have applied to the Congress to permit mr Charles Whitlow to cultivate the Ground destined for a Botanical Garden at the junction of the President’s Square & Capitol Park So. of the mouth of the Tiber & to occupy it till demanded by Congress, he being obliged to give it up on demand, they paying the valuation of the Improvements & for the collection of plants.—mr Whitlow is the person who has made so many valuable Discoveries in this Country of new Plants, and lately one of immense Importance as a substitute for Flax & Hemp. The Plant I have no doubt will supersede Flax & Hemp compleatly. It grows about 5 or 6 feet high and is perennial. It produces 500 for one, & can therefore be propagated with great rapidity. It produces abt a thousand pounds Wt of good Flax pr Acre. It does not require rotting to be ready for manufacturing, & loses very little in preparing. It may be spun into thread equal to No 44 equal to 10 Dolls a lb, and is still very strong. It makes ropes & Cables so much stronger than the best Russia hemp as to decide that a nine Inch Cable would equal a 12 Inch cable of the hemp.—It is sufficiently soft, especially when bleached, to make the finest & strongest paper.—mr Whitlow has taken out a Patent for the uses to which he has applied it, and has had a very large Sum offered for it, but he prefers selling it to the different States and values Virginia at 10,000 Dolls. I think it is one of the most valuable Discoveries that has been made for a very long time.—mr Whitlow has a very valuable Collection of Plants viz 2500 Species ready to bring here from the Botanical Gardens of the Universities of Edinburgh & Cambridge, with a superb Collection of the most valuable Fruit Trees. Currants as large as common Grapes &c &c—

I am dear Sir with the highest respect and consideration yours sincerely &c

William Thornton

RC (DLC); at foot of text: “Honorable Thomas Jefferson”; endorsed by TJ as received 26 Jan. 1812 and so recorded in SJL; with RC of Ferdinando Fairfax to TJ, [ca. 20 Jan. 1812], on verso of last page.

In the United States House of Representatives on 20 Jan. 1812, Samuel Latham Mitchill presented a petition from charles whitlow requesting “permission to occupy the grounds, in the city of Washington, destined to a Botanic garden, and to be given up on the demand of the Government, he being paid for the improvements, plants, trees, and shrubs, introduced into the same, at their valuation by independent persons.” A bill to this effect was introduced in the House on 25 Feb., but the Senate discharged the petition from further consideration on 1 Apr. 1812 (JHR description begins Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States description ends , 8:134, 202; JS description begins Journal of the Senate of the United States description ends , 5:90). Whitlow received a patent on 11 Jan. 1812 for a “new species of plant applicable to many uses, particularly for the uses of flax and hemp, &c.,” a discovery Thornton regarded as being of immense importance (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 , 109).

Charles Whitlow (Whitlaw) was a botanist and inventor who came to America from Great Britain in 1794. By 1809 he was a nurseryman in New York City, selling shrubs and fruit trees imported from London. Whitlow energetically promoted a plant he claimed to have discovered in 1810, which came to be known as Urtica Whitlowi. It was later described as Urtica Canadensis, and its modern name is probably Laportea canadensis. Whitlow followed up his 1812 federal patent by petitioning the New York State Assembly to support his ongoing plant research, which he claimed “promises more advantages to the arts and manufactures than any other discovery of modern years.” The state legislature duly incorporated the Urtica Whitlowi Society on 12 Apr. 1813, but skepticism soon emerged regarding his discovery. Critics dismissed it as the common nettle. Nonetheless, two years later Whitlow successfully patented “certain plants of the genus urtica” in Great Britain. In 1816–17 he came to the United States on an extensive botanical lecture tour. Whitlow returned to Great Britain, published regularly on agriculture and nutrition, and invented a medicated vapor bath, but he never completely shed his reputation as a charlatan (New-York Gazette & General Advertiser, 16 Nov. 1809; Thornton to TJ, 8 May 1812, 19 Feb. 1817; Brattleborough, Vt., Reporter, 6 Feb. 1813; Journal of the Assembly of the State of New-York [Albany, 1813], 112, 119, 570–1; Laws of the State of New-York, passed at the Thirty-Sixth Session [Albany, 1813], 302–4; Whitlow to James Monroe, 23 Dec. 1813 [DNA: RG 59, MLR]; Transactions of the Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts, in the State of New-York 3 [1814]: 77, 79–80; Repertory of Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, 2d ser., 26 [1815]: 127; Tradesman; or, Commercial Magazine 5 [1815]: 474–5; Philadelphia Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, 2 Dec. 1816; New-York Columbian, 30 May 1817; New-York Spectator, 12 Sept. 1817; Transactions of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec 3 [1824]: 85; Richard Peters to James Madison, 24 Aug. 1818 [DLC: Madison Papers, Rives Collection]; Francis W. Gilmer to TJ, 15 Sept. 1824; Whitlow, A Short Review of the Causes and Effects of the Present Distress [1839], esp. 33).

Index Entries

  • Barrett, Oliver; spinning machine of search
  • botany; and proposed Washington botanical garden search
  • Cambridge University search
  • carding machines; TJ seeks advice on search
  • Cranch, William; buys spinning machine search
  • currants; sweet-scented search
  • Edinburgh, University of search
  • Fairfax, Ferdinando; and spinning machines search
  • flax; substitutes for search
  • gardens; proposed Washington botanical garden search
  • hemp; Russian search
  • Herrick, Ebenezer; and Domestic Spinner (spinning machine) search
  • machines; spinning search
  • machines; spinning billy search
  • machines; spinning jenny search
  • Mitchill, Samuel Latham; and botany search
  • nettle, wood search
  • patents; of C. Whitlow search
  • patents; of O. Barrett search
  • plants; discovery of new search
  • schools and colleges; Cambridge University search
  • schools and colleges; University of Edinburgh search
  • spinning billys search
  • spinning jennies search
  • spinning machines; described search
  • sweet-scented currants search
  • Thornton, William; and C. Whitlow’s botanical discoveries search
  • Thornton, William; and spinning machines search
  • Thornton, William; letters from search
  • trees; C. Whitlow’s collection of search
  • trees; fruit search
  • Washington (D.C.); proposed botanical garden in search
  • Whitlow, Charles; and proposed Washington botanical garden search
  • Whitlow, Charles; and Urtica Whitlowi (wood nettle) search
  • Whitlow, Charles; botanical collection of search
  • Whitlow, Charles; identified search
  • Whitlow, Charles; patents substitute for flax and hemp search
  • wool; merino search
  • wool; price of search
  • wool; spinning of search