Thomas Jefferson Papers

From John Cooke to George Washington, 28 March 1791

From John Cooke to George Washington

Tipperary, 28 Mch. 1791. Understanding that regulation of weights and measures is one object of American government, he sends the enclosed “invention” from “a poor individual, in an obscure corner of a remote nation, as a mark of that universal esteem, which your Excellency’s Merits have excited in all countries, and amongst every class of men.”

RC (DNA: RG 59, MLR); endorsed by TJ: “To the President. Delivered to Th: J. Aug. 18.” 1791 (so recorded in SJL). Enclosure: Cooke’s “Description of a new standard for Weights and Measures,” which began with the following premises: “The want of uniformity in weights and measures is a subject of general complaint at present; it is an infinite source of fraud, and the great obstacle to domestic and foreign commerce.—The first step necessary to remove this evil, is to appoint an universal, perpetual, and immutable standard, for length, superficies, weight, and capacity; whereby the instruments of measurement may be adjusted, and also whereby they may be described to distant countries, and to future ages.—Natural substances are incapable of furnishing one of this description. Every thing in the material world is in a state of gradual alteration, it differs from itself under different circumstances, and differs from every individual of the same species.—General and permanent immutability is to be found only in our abstract ideas; and none of these can define dimensions but our ideas of geometrical diagrams; therefore, if we could discover such relations or qualities in a geometrical figure, as are peculiar to it, and as would distinguish it from all other similar figures, we should have a correct standard; but as every attempt to accomplish this has failed, we are obliged to resort to these general qualities of matter which are the most durable and least variable. Of this class are cohesion, motion, gravity, &c. upon the last of which the following theorem depends, and from which also Mr. Huygens has deduced the pendulum standard.” But Cooke rejected the pendulum for various reasons, substituting therefor a cube-shaped vessel having in its bottom an aperture in a given ratio to its base, so that “if the ratio between the weight of the water which this vessel contains when full, and the weight of the water discharged from it … in a given time be given, the cube itself is given” (MS not found; text from Am. Phil. Soc., Trans., iii [1793], 328–31, with an erroneous identification of TJ as the recipient).

Evidently neither Washington nor TJ responded to Cooke’s letter. But on the day after TJ received it the enclosure was read at a meeting of the American Philosophical Society. The audience included TJ and Jean Baptiste Ternant, “Ambassador” from France (Minutes for 19 Aug. 1791, Am. Phil. Soc., Procs., xxii [July, 1885], 195).

Index Entries