Thomas Jefferson Papers

Robert Patterson to Thomas Jefferson, 12 January 1813

From Robert Patterson

Philadelphia Jany 12 1813.


This day I had prepared to ship your Time-piece &c on board the Happy Return, Capt Hand, for Richmond, to be addressed to Mr Gibson, as you direct in your favour of the 27th Ult. But our river is now frozen over, & we must wait for an opening, when the shipment will be made:—

The pendulum has a compensating thermometer attached to it; the invention, I believe, of Mr Rittenhouse, and such as the time-piece in his observatory (& now in possession of the Phil. Socy) is furnished with.—I have besides had a cylindrical pendulum made agreeably to your desire, which can be suspended in place of the other, in a few minutes. It has a regulating screw at the top, & from a tryal of several days appears to perform very well

You may, Sir, possibly have observed, in some of our news-papers, that the Legislature of this State have appointed a committee of eight persons, (of whom I am one) “to make a strict examination of the machine invented by Charles Readhefer, and to make as specific a representation respecting it as its alleged importance & the public expectation require.” The committee have made a formal application to Mr R. to appoint the time & place for this examination; but this he has not yet done—and most probably never will submit his machine to the examination required, as he must be conscious it would issue in the detection of the fraud he has so successfully practised.— Several models of this machine, and one of the exact dimensions of the original, have been made in this city—but all, except one, entirely destitute of any self-moving power. This one, made by an ingenious artist of this city, a Mr Lukins, had the source of motion so artfully concealed, that it deceived (as the maker intended) Mr Duane, Mr Matlock, and many others, of the believers, as they are now termed, in Readhefers perpetual motion. Mr Lukins candidly confessed to me, the day after his machine was put in motion, that it was a deception, which he would discover after he had diverte[d] himself a little with the credulity of R’s believers.

Several pieces have been published in our newspaper[s] tending to demonstrate the impossibility of a self-moving machine. One, under the signature of “Rittenhouse,” appeared in the Aurora; & was said to be written by my son Robert, which no doubt you have seen—but all to no effect—the mania seems still rather to increase—Some pieces have been published, particularly one by Mr Adrain Prof. of Math. &c in the college of New Brunswick N. J. pointing out the probable source of motion, namely, a very slow, & scarce perceptible descent of the great horizontal wheel, by means of a particular arrangement of the cogs in the train of wheels;—but this cannot be the cause of motion, as it is totally inadequate to the effect produced.

Excuse, Sir, my saying so much on this silly subject. It being at present almost the sole topic of conversation amongst us must be my apology.

I am, Sir, with the greatest respect & esteem, your most obedt servt

Rt Patterson

RC (DLC); torn at seal; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Monticello Va”; franked; postmarked Philadelphia, 12 Jan.; endorsed by TJ as received 21 Jan. 1813 and so recorded in SJL.

In 1767 David Rittenhouse constructed a compensating thermometer that used “the principle of the expansion and contraction of metals, by heat and cold, respectively” (William Barton, Memoirs of the Life of David Rittenhouse [Philadelphia, 1813; Sowerby, description begins E. Millicent Sowerby, comp., Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson, 1952–59, 5 vols. description ends no. 529], 155).

Patterson quotes from a 17 Dec. 1812 act of the Pennsylvania legislature that named an expert committee consisting of himself, Archibald Binny, Oliver Evans, Samuel D. Ingham, Nathan Sellers, Henry Voigt, Lewis Wermwag, and Josiah White to assess Redheffer’s invention. When Redheffer failed to meet them, the group had to content itself with viewing the machine through a window. Sellers commissioned Isaiah Lukens (lukins) to construct a replica (a photograph of which is reproduced elsewhere in this volume), which used a concealed clockwork motor. Redheffer was mystified by the success of Lukens’s model of his own machine and offered to pay for the specifications. Dismissed by experts as a fraud in Philadelphia, Redheffer moved to New York, where Robert Fulton disassembled his machine and unmasked its builder as an imposter. However, Redheffer continued to exhibit similar devices as late as 1819 (Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania [1812–13 sess.], 263–4; Arthur W. J. G. Ord-Hume, Perpetual Motion: The History of an Obsession [1977], 125–33; New York Commercial Advertiser, 16 Nov. 1819).

William duane and Timothy Matlack (matlock) were indeed among the believers, the former reporting that Lukens had built a machine “in imitation of Mr Readhefer’s which possesses the same property of producing spontaneous and continued motion” and the latter confirming after examining Readhefer’s machine that he was “fully and perfectly satisfied that it is a fair exhibition of a plain, practical application of the mechanical powers in a new mode” (Philadelphia Weekly Aurora, 15 Dec. 1812, 5 Jan. 1813).

In his essay on the impossibility of Readhefer’s claims, Robert adrain conceded that “the world has been amused with numerous attempts to produce a perpetual motion, but all these originated with men who had scarcely passed the threshold of the temple of science, and who were therefore utterly unqualified to predict the results of their own mechanical contrivances, or with men who aware of the credulity of the public in this respect, took advantage of the circumstance to acquire a temporary applause, or to remunerate themselves for the time and the labour they had lost in their infatuated researches” (“Letter to a Friend respecting the Perpetual Motion,” Hudson, N.Y., Northern Whig, 5 Jan. 1813).

Index Entries

  • Adrain, Robert search
  • American Philosophical Society; and compensating thermometer search
  • Binny, Archibald; and perpetual-motion machine search
  • Duane, William; and perpetual-motion machine search
  • Evans, Oliver; and perpetual-motion machine search
  • Fulton, Robert; and perpetual-motion machine search
  • Gibson, Patrick; and goods for TJ search
  • Hand, Capt. (captain of Happy Return) search
  • Happy Return (ship) search
  • Ingham, Samuel D. search
  • Lukens, Isaiah; and perpetual-motion machine search
  • Matlack, Timothy; and perpetual-motion machine search
  • Patterson, Robert; and astronomical case clock search
  • Patterson, Robert; and perpetual-motion machine search
  • Patterson, Robert; letters from search
  • Patterson, Robert Maskell; and perpetual-motion machine search
  • Pennsylvania; legislature of search
  • perpetual-motion machines; and R. Patterson search
  • perpetual-motion machines; I. Lukens’s model of search
  • perpetual-motion machines; of C. Redheffer search
  • Redheffer, Charles; perpetual-motion machine of search
  • Rittenhouse, David; and compensating thermometer search
  • Sellers, Nathan search
  • thermometers; compensating search
  • Voigt, Henry; and perpetual-motion machine search
  • Wermwag, Lewis search
  • White, Josiah search