Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thomson, 22 April 1786

To Charles Thomson

London Apr. 22. 1786

Dear Sir

In one of your former letters you expressed a wish to have one of the newly invented lamps. I find them made here much better than at Paris, and take the liberty of asking your acceptance of one which will accompany this letter. It is now found that any tolerable oil may be used in them. The Spermaceti oil is best of the cheap kinds.

I could write you volumes on the improvements which I find made and making here in the arts. One deserves particular notice, because it is simple, great, and likely to have extensive consequences. It is the application of steam as an agent for working grist mills. I have visited the one lately made here. It was at that time turning eight pair of stones. It consumes 100. bushels of coal a day. It is proposed to put up 30. pair of stones. I do not know whether the quantity of fuel is to be increased. I hear you are applying this same agent in America to navigate boats, and I have little doubt but that it will be applied generally to machines, so as to supercede the use of water ponds, and of course to lay open all the streams for navigation. We know that steam is one of the most powerful engines we can employ; and in America fuel is abundant. I find no new publication here worth sending to you. I shall set out for Paris within three or four days. Our public letters will inform you of our public proceedings here. I am with sincere esteem Dear Sir Your friend & servant,

Th: Jefferson

RC (DLC: Thomson Papers). PrC (DLC: TJ Papers). Tr (DLC: TJ Papers); in an unidentified hand.

TJ evidently viewed the steam mill at Blackfriars Bridge only a day or two before this letter was written. On 20 Apr. young Benjamin Vaughan wrote John Adams: “Mr. Vaughan presents his compliments to Mr. Adams and waits for the enclosed for the answer on the subject of it. Dr. Gray makes a private party for Mr. V., and of course will be happy to see Mrs. and Miss Adams, with Col. Jefferson and Col. Smith. Mr. V. is endeavoring to procure Mr. Bolton’s permission to see the immense machinery at Black friars Bridge for grinding corn by means of the steam engine, as difficulties have been feared respecting some foreigners, which Mr. V. does not apprehend [will] occur in the present instance” (MHi: AMT; Vaughan wrote Adams again on 21 Apr., planning another expedition for the 29th, and expressed the hope that TJ and W. S. Smith would “be also of the party to Mincing Lane [his home]”; same). On 21 June 1781, Matthew Boulton had written to his collaborator, James Watt, whose improvements on the old Newcomen engine ushered in the age of steam power: “The people in London Manchester and Birmingham are steam mill mad. I don’t mean to hurry you but I think … we should determine to take out a patent for certain methods of producing rotative motion from … the fire engine” (H. W. Dickinson, Matthew Boulton, Cambridge, 1937, p. 113). The result was the double-acting engine with beam, connecting rod, and “sun and planet” gear; two models of grist mills arranged to be driven by rotative engines are preserved in the Science Museum, South Kensington (see illustration in this volume). The so-called Albion Mill on the south side of the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge was incorporated in 1784; Samuel Wyatt was the architect, Boulton and Watt undertook to supply the engines, and John Rennie, Scottish millwright, prepared the dressing and grinding machinery. The first engine was started on 15 Feb. 1786, only a few weeks before TJ arrived in London. At the beginning of its work, Boulton was in constant attendance at the mill, and was certainly there at the time Vaughan was negotiating arrangements for the trip (same, p. 123). This mill, which was regarded as one of the mechanical wonders of the day, was burned to the water’s edge on 3 Mch. 1791 and before the third engine was installed. Boulton had not been at his Soho Mill at Birmingham when TJ and Adams were there, but, while we may regret TJ’s inability to write volumes on the improvements … made and making here, it is not difficult to imagine that he and Boulton must have conversed about coinage, about duplicating pictures with mechanical processes, about TJ’s old teacher and Boulton’s associate, Dr. William Small, and about Boulton’s intention to apply for French patents for the rotative engines. But at least Boulton’s Albion Mill inspired TJ to record the present brief yet convincing proof that he was aware of the extensive consequences likely to be brought about by this new use of power, particularly in America. See also TJ to Thomson, 17 Dec. 1786.

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