Thomas Jefferson Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Robert Gillespie, 3 August 1814

To Robert Gillespie

Monticello Aug. 3. 14.


Your favor of June 10. has come to hand after a long passage. no one however is less qualified than myself to judge of the merits of your invention of the Log still. for altho’ not unacquainted with the general theory of distillation, yet I never had occasion to examine the structure even of the common still. but I do not understand how you can have been refused a patent whether the invention were new or not. the law (unless it has been altered since my attention to it) has made the issuing a patent a matter of right to whoever pays the sum of 30.D. and gives in the specification Etc of their invention; and leaves it to be settled by a court and jury whether the invention be new. and this is to be done by the patentee’s bringing an action against any1 individual who uses the invention without having purchased the right to do so. if it be found not to have been new the patentee fails in his action; if otherwise he recovers the damages prescribed by law. this I believe to be the state of the law at present, and that a patent cannot be refused to you. supposing that the drawing you favored me with may be useful to yourself and that it ought not to get into other hands, I return it with the assurances of my respect & esteem.

Th: Jefferson

PoC (DLC); at foot of text: “Mr Robert Gillespie”; endorsed by TJ. Enclosure not found.

Robert Gillespie, inventor, spent time in New York, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. In 1810 he patented a perpetual still and evaporator, which he described in his A New Plan For Distilling With Greater Facility Than Has Ever Been Heretofore Practised In Any Country (Baltimore, 1810). Five years later he received a patent for a steam still. Gillespie became embroiled in a bitter and public patent dispute with James Wheatley, of Fauquier County, recipient of an 1813 patent for an improvement in the still and condensing tub. The men continued to quarrel even after agreeing to divide their rights by region according to a contract recorded in the Culpeper County Court (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 , 81, 129, 149; Washington Daily National Intelligencer, 12, 18 May, 13 July 1815; Gillespie to James Monroe, 11 Mar. 1816 [DNA: RG 59, MLR]; Gillespie, Observations on Mashing [Knoxville, 1817; broadside at NcU]; Harrison Hall, The Distiller [Philadelphia, 1818], 62–7).

Gillespie’s letter of june. 10, not found, is recorded in SJL as received from Nashville on 6 July 1814. The patent law of 1793, which TJ helped to draft, required a 30.d. fee from inventors submitting patent requests. In 1800 the law was amended to set the penalty incurred by an individual who used an invention without having purchased the right to do so at triple the actual damages sustained by the patentee, his or her executors, administrators, or assigns (PTJ description begins Julian P. Boyd, Charles T. Cullen, John Catanzariti, Barbara B. Oberg, and others, eds., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1950– , 34 vols. description ends , 22:359–62, 25:398–9; U.S. Statutes at Large description begins Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States … 1789 to March 3, 1845, 1845–67, 8 vols. description ends , 1:318–23, 2:37–8).

1Word interlined in place of “some.”

Index Entries

  • An Act to promote the progress of useful Arts (1793) search
  • Gillespie, Robert; identified search
  • Gillespie, Robert; invents still search
  • Gillespie, Robert; letters from accounted for search
  • Gillespie, Robert; letters to search
  • inventions; distilling search
  • Jefferson, Thomas; Opinions on; patent law search
  • patents; guidelines for issuing search
  • patents; patent law of1793 search
  • stills; R. Gillespie invents search