Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2336:
JEFFERSON, INVENTOR

by Rob Zaretsky

Today, it is necessarily so. The University of Houston's Honors College presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Good words, like good wine, grow more complex with age. Just as wine reflects a specific climate and soil, so too for words: they draw their character from the loam of the past. Thomas Jefferson, maker of the Declaration of Independence, and of his own vineyard, understood this.

"When in the course of human events it becomes necessary ...": few openings are so celebrated -- and so misunderstood. For us, these words express the romance of revolution. Yet Jefferson was hardly a romantic; on the contrary, he was a scientist. Declaring independence was, for him, literally necessary. The colonists had no choice in the matter: they were -- and this is the language of physics as well as the Declaration -- impelled to revolt against England just as the planets are impelled to revolve around the sun.

In the era of the Enlightenment, planets were the emblem of necessity. Isaac Newton's Principia revealed a universe governed by constant and general laws. As Alexander Pope wrote in poetic meter as predictable as Newton's laws,

Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night
God said, 'Let Newton be,' and all was light.

This light reached as far as moral and political philosophers like Jefferson. For them, Newton's laws explained more than the mechanics of the physical universe: they promised a mechanics of society. In this light, Jefferson's "course of human events" is not a rhetorical flourish, but an empirical statement. Like the course of Mars, history's path is determined by observable facts. The self-evident claims of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, just like the law of gravity, cannot be overruled by monarchs or despots.

The newborn United States did not have its own Newton, but it did have David Rittenhouse. One of colonial America's greatest inventors, Rittenhouse introduced himself to others as a "mechanic." The complexity and elegance of Rittenhouse's clocks and timepieces were so great that Jefferson placed him alongside Washington and Franklin in the pantheon of American heroes.

Shortly before Jefferson invented the Declaration, Rittenhouse invented his "astronomical clock": a machine representing the operations of the solar system. Called the "Orrery" after the English aristocrat for whom an earlier version was made, Jefferson instead dubbed it the "Rittenhouse." It was only his due:
Rittenhouse, Jefferson wrote, "has not indeed made a world; be he has by imitation approached nearer its Maker than any man who has lived from the creation to this day."

Historian Gary Wills argues that for Jefferson, machines, far from enslaving us, would set us free. Just as his moldboard plow added to the sum of human happiness, so too would the machines of political declarations and democratic institutions. According to the old, perhaps dubious saw, necessity is the mother of invention. Yet Jefferson had a different, more provocative take: necessity is the mother of something even greater than invention. It is the mother of Liberty.

I'm Rob Zaretsky at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


G. Wills, Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence (New York: Vintage 1978).

For more on Jefferson as inventor, see Episode 792.

Jefferson's Plow
A replica of Jefferson's moldboard plow (Image courtesy of The Thomas Jefferson Foundation.)
Rittenhouse and Jefferson
(Public domain images courtesy of Wikipedia)


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2008 by John H. Lienhard.