Thomas Jefferson Papers

James Clarke to Thomas Jefferson, 6 July 1817

From James Clarke

Powhatan County, July 6th 1817

Dear Sir—

Fearing that you have many intrusive correspondants, and that I may be rank’d among the number, it is with great deference I make this little communication; which I hope you will excuse.

When I had the pleasure of being in your company (about 8. or 9 years ago, at Monteceloe) conversing on the subject of the Odomater, you asked me, if I thought it practicable to construct a machine that could lay down the platt of a road by the traveling of a carriage over it? I answered, I had thought but little on the subject; but from the few thoughts I had spent on it, I was of opinion it could be done. You replyed, you thought diferently. Since then, having been engaged in many other persuits, I thought but little more on the subject. Untill this spring, having entirely recovered from a long and dangerous indisposition acquired in the army of Norfolk in 1813; and being more at leasure to try experiments, I turn’d my attention a little more on the subject; and have at length reduced the theory to practice.—With very temporary materials I made a machine with which (being attached to the carriage wheel) I made a survey of a triangle of road, about 12 mile in Circimference, which completely answered my expectation. If it will not intrude too much on your attention, I will give a few of the out lines.

The chart is placed on a horizontal plane on the floor of the carriage The part of the machine which marks off the platt, progresses on the chart as the carriage moves. A rod, or index, placed convenient to the eye, and moved by the hand, is kept constantly pointing to the North-Star. This index being connected with the machine, and changing its angle with the carriage, at every turn of the road, produces on the chart, all the turns and angles which there is in the road.

But, altho this machine is perfect in principle, it is not so in practice; for want of a perfect index. The objections to this index are, 1st It can be used only in the night, 2d It can be used only in fair weather, 3d It can be used only in latitudes, neither too high, nor too low, 4th The North-Star is too often eclipsed by trees and other objects; perticularly in summer.

I have tryed several experiments to make the magnetick needle answer as an index; but have not been able to succeed; in consequence of the vibration of the needle produced by the agitation of the carriage. If this difficulty could be removed, I have no doubt it would be a very valuable acquisition. And what would add still more to its convenience—the ascent, and descent, of unlevel ground could be taken upon the same principle, and at the same time.

To take the ascent & descent, a pendulum would be a very good index. Altho the pendulum would be constantly vibrating, it[s] general direction would be perpendicular to the horizon. And as the plane of the chart varies from the plane of the horizon, by the ascending or descending of the carriage, so will the pendulum vary from its right angle with the plane of the chart; and mark off a track thereon, above, or below, a right line on the chart, representing the horizon

In surveying water courses, navigable by boats, or even canoes the magnetick needle would answer exceedingly well as an index to this machine if the water was still; but as the machine would receive its motion from the surface of the water, the current would defeat the object, and render it impracticable.

In surveying publick roads, with this instrument, the magnetick needle will answer very well, by the addition of one person more, to go before with a white pole; and stoping the carriage at each turn of the road, long enough for the needle to rest, and to set the index.

And this I think will be a great improvement on the common way of surveying roads; as it will be more expeditious, less expensive, and less subject to error: as the surveyor will not have to keep a reckoning—to enter his notes—and to plott from those notes. all of which are subject [to]1 error. But I have already drawn your attention too long I am affraid, from subjects more interesting—

Please Sir, accept the highest esteem, and venerati[on,] of your most obedient and very humble Servan[t]

James Clarke

RC (DLC); damaged at seal; addressed: “Mr Thomas Jefferson Monteceloe Albemarle county” by “mail”; franked; endorsed by TJ as received 15 July 1817 and so recorded in SJL.

James Clarke (ca. 1759–1830), planter and inventor, was a Revolutionary War veteran who became a lieutenant colonel of the Powhatan County militia in 1803 and led the county’s militia regiment during the War of 1812. He lived for many years at Belnemus, his 530-acre estate in Powhatan County. During a visit to Monticello in 1807, Clarke gave TJ an odometer of his own invention. TJ used the device, which rang a bell every mile traveled, on his carriage until at least 1821. In 1818 Clarke obtained a patent for this invention. He served as president of the Powhatan auxiliary of the American Colonization Society in the 1820s. At the time of his death Clarke owned personal property valued at $6,010.62, including sixteen slaves as well as a number of odometers (G. Brown Goode, Virginia Cousins: A Study of the Ancestry and Posterity of John Goode of Whitby [1887], 229–30; TJ to Clarke, 22 May, 5 June 1807 [both in DLC], 5 Sept. 1820; Clarke to TJ, 27 May 1807 [MHi]; DNA: RG 29, CS, Powhatan Co., 1810–30; Stuart Lee Butler, A Guide to Virginia Militia Units in the War of 1812 [1988], 172, 227; 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 , 196; Leesburg Genius of Liberty, 8 Aug. 1820; MB description begins James A. Bear Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton, eds., Jefferson’s Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767–1826, 1997, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series description ends , 2:1374; American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Colour of the United States [later the American Colonization Society], Annual Reports 9 [1826]: 61; 10 [1827]: 88; 11 [1828]: 50–9 [all repr. 1969]; Daily Richmond Whig and Richmond Commercial Compiler, both 3 Jan. 1831; Powhatan Co. Will Book, 8:390–2, 419–24; Richmond Enquirer, 13 May 1831).

1Omitted word editorially supplied.

Index Entries

  • carriages; odometers for search
  • carriages; platting instruments for search
  • Clarke, James (of Powhatan Co.); identified search
  • Clarke, James (of Powhatan Co.); letter from search
  • Clarke, James (of Powhatan Co.); odometer of search
  • Clarke, James (of Powhatan Co.); platting instrument of search
  • Clarke, James (of Powhatan Co.); visits Monticello search
  • inventions; for platting roads search
  • inventions; odometer search
  • Monticello (TJ’s Albemarle Co. estate); Visitors to; Clarke, James search
  • odometers search