Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Joseph H. Nicholson, [27 January 1801]

From Joseph H. Nicholson

Tuesday Morning [27 Jan. 1801]


I take the Liberty of enclosing you a Letter which I received last Evening from a man of some Talent for Mechanics, who is desirous of laying before you the Draught of a Machine which he has invented; and which he thinks will be extensively useful in leading to the great Desideratum, “Perpetual Motion”—I have felt some Reluctance in making this Application to you, as I confess I have not much Confidence in his Discovery; for although he is the Author of some useful Inventions, and is a man of much personal worth, I have always placed Perpetual Motion in the same Class with the Philosopher’s Stone; however as he feels much Solicitude on the Subject and is an acquaintance of my early Life, I could not, consistently with my Desire to serve him, refuse to comply with his Request, which I hope you will consider as a sufficient Apology for this Intrusion—

If therefore it will not tresspass too much on your time, and you will let me know when you will be at Leisure, I will introduce him that he may have an Opportunity of spending half an Hour with you—I have never seen his Machine and know nothing of the Principles on which it is constructed, as he has always been particularly cautious in keeping, what he deems, an invaluable Secret—

I am Sir with due Respect Yr. Ob. Servt.

Joseph H. Nicholson

RC (DLC); partially dated; endorsed by TJ as written and received on 27 Jan. and so recorded in SJL. Enclosure: Thomas Bruff to Nicholson, 23 Jan. 1801, soliciting Nicholson’s aid in obtaining an interview with TJ to present his plan (RC in DLC).

Joseph Hopper Nicholson (1770–1817) was the son of Joseph Nicholson, Jr., and Elizabeth Hopper Nicholson of Maryland. He studied law and served in the Maryland House of Delegates from 1796 to 1798, when he was elected to Congress. He became a close friend of John Randolph of Roanoke, who also began his congressional career in 1799, and Nicholson, along with Randolph and Nathaniel Macon, became a Republican leader in the House of Representatives. Nicholson, a cousin of Albert Gallatin’s wife, Hannah, socialized and worked closely with the Treasury secretary. In 1806 Nicholson left Congress to become chief justice of Maryland’s sixth judicial district and an associate justice of the Maryland court of appeals, positions he held until his death. He became the first president of the Commercial and Farmers’ Bank of Baltimore in 1810. During the War of 1812, Nicholson raised and commanded an artillery company and was present at the battles of Bladensburg and Fort McHenry. He married Rebecca Lloyd in 1793 and is buried on the Lloyd family estate at Wye House (DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–36, 20 vols. description ends ; Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., The Process of Government under Jefferson [Princeton, 1978], 190–2, 194, 198–200; Raymond Walters, Jr., Albert Gallatin: Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat [New York, 1957], 119, 148–9, 192).

TJ immediately replied to this letter on 27 Jan. and invited Nicholson and “any person recommended by him” to visit. The vice president noted that he was “at home always when not in Senate,” and thus left “the hour to mr Nicholson. perhaps between 10. & 11. may suit mr N. best, as he comes then to Congress, but any other hour or day will be equally agreeable to Th:J” (RC owned by Rosalie S. Magruder, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1961; not recorded in SJL).

Author of some useful inventions: in 1797 Thomas Bruff received a patent for an “improvement in extracting teeth” and the next year Thomas Bruff, Sr., received a patent for an “improvement in grinding coffee.” When TJ met with Bruff he advised him to build an operating model of the “machine for perpetual time” as described in his plan if he wished to receive patronage (List of Patents, description begins A List of Patents granted by the United States from April 10, 1792, to December 31, 1836, Washington, D.C., 1872 description ends 15–16; MB description begins James A. Bear, Jr., and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, Princeton, 1997, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 2:1093; Bruff to TJ, 16 Dec. 1801).

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