7 Things Invented or Popularized by Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson wasn't just a founding father of America, he was a prolific inventor too.
Trevor English

Thomas Jefferson is known as one of the United States' founding fathers, and as a true Renaissance Man. He became president in 1801, but he was also a scientist, an inventor, an architect, and even a philosopher. He made accomplishments in each of those fields that are still remembered today — thought slightly outshined by his diplomatic prowess.

If you're sitting down reading this with a bowl of mac and cheese, then you can thank Thomas Jefferson for the noodles. If you're wearing an Apple Watch, you can thank Thomas Jefferson for coming up with the pedometer function. 


The founding father had his hand in many things, so let's take a look at just seven of his inventions that might surprise you. 

Revolving book stand

First on the list of inventions is that of a revolving bookstand. This may not seem like a remarkable revelation nowadays, but remember, back in the 1800s, books were all people had to garner new knowledge from. Just like you have multiple tabs open on your internet browser, the book stand Thomas Jefferson designed allowed for multiple books to be viewed at the same time. 

He essentially developed a turntable that held books on adjustable stands. It had five individual stands for the books and the user could swivel it to read a new passage. The stand also had the strange ability to be folded down into a cube, possibly for easier transport. It was probably made to Jefferson's design and specifications in a nearby joiner's shop. 


While dumbwaiters have fallen out of fashion in the 21st century, they were formerly used to transport food and wine between floors. Jefferson became used to them while in France, where they took the form of a portable serving stand and he later designed a dumbwaiter system for use in his home in Monticello as a way for servants to transport goods throughout his house.

Jefferson had five dumbwaiters in his dining area, including a particular model that was described as a spring-loaded turning shelf between the kitchen and dining room. The device allowed the kitchen staff to put food and beverages into the dumbwaiter, then turn it so it would appear in the dining room. After the meal, the guests would put their empty plates on the dumbwaiter, and it would revolve back into the kitchen. Jefferson used a similar model at the White House during his presidency as well, and is said to have designed the system himself.

7 Things Invented or Popularized by Thomas Jefferson
Source: Duffymatot

This wasn't the most impactful of inventions and it solved what was really a "rich person's problem," but still, Thomas Jefferson did make great strides in the industry of inter-room food transport.

The great clock

The great clock is exactly that, great. It was a big clock invented by Thomas Jefferson. The seven-day clock is mounted in the Entrance Hall of Monticello and has a second, exterior face on the east front of the house, which has only an hour hand.

The clock is powered by two sets of cannon-ball-like weights, which drive its ticking and the striking of a gong on the roof. The weights are strung on ropes and descend in the corners of the room on either side of the clock, through holes in the floor to the cellar below. Labels next to the path of the weights indicate the days of the week.

When the clock struck certain times, a massive gong would ring that could reportedly be heard from three miles (4.8 km) away. The gongs were based on a Chinese system that Jefferson had read about.

Jefferson planned the design for the Great Clock, which was built to his specifications. 

Wheel cipher

The wheel cipher was a helpful tool devised by Jefferson for encoding messages with ease. It was described as a small circular device that had 36 wooden disks on a spindle. Each disk had letters of the alphabet in different orders. When arranged in different patterns, you could create a "key" and inscribe messages under a set cipher. 

7 Things Invented or Popularized by Thomas Jefferson
Source: NSA/Wikimedia

This device would've been used to securely transfer information between leaders. Codes were necessary because European postmasters routinely opened and read all diplomatic letters passing through their command. 

Jefferson seems never to have used the wheel cipher, and apparently abandoned the idea after 1802. It was independently "re-invented" in the early 20th century. Designated as M-94, it was used by the Army and other military services from 1922 to the beginning of World War II.  A short time later, Jefferson's design was found among his papers.


No, Thomas Jefferson didn't invent the lie detector, but he did invent something called a polygraph. If you take a moment and think about the root of that word, you can determine that it means poly -many- and graph -writings or results.

7 Things Invented or Popularized by Thomas Jefferson
Source: Library of Congress/Wikimedia

These roots combined come out to describe a device that creates many writings. Jefferson first acquired a polygraph in 1804 and called it "the finest invention of the present age."

It used the principles of the pantograph, a draftsman's tool for reducing and enlarging drawings. The writer's hand moves one pen, whose action is duplicated by a second pen, producing an almost exact copy. Its inventor, an Englishman named John Hawkins, assigned his American patent rights to Charles Willson Peale and Jefferson was one of Peale's most eager clients. Jefferson made many suggestions for how Peale could improve the design, which Peale took up.

Macaroni machine

Thomas Jefferson founded America, he helped write the Declaration of Independence, and he popularized macaroni. 

Essentially what Jefferson did was create a machine that could make pasta. It was a board with different holes spread about it that would produce small curved, hollow macaroni noodles as a crank was turned. This speed up the pasta making process, helping turn it from a largely hand-worked endeavor into a far more automated one. 

As a result of his invention of this machine, this great thinker is often credited as the person who popularized macaroni and cheese in the U.S. However, unfortunately this is likely not true... but many still make the case for it!


In 1525 a french engineer Jean Fernel invented a small device that was able to count people's steps. Even before him, Leonardo da Vinci created a device that dropped stones into a bucket on set intervals to count distance. 

Jefferson's contribution to the history of the pedometer may have involved improving on then-current designs and taking learnings from existing devices. He probably introduced a mechanical pedometer obtained from France and may have modified the design. Evidence for his work on the pedometer is difficult to come by, as he did not apply for patents on any of his inventions.

Thomas Jefferson may have invented a new kind of pedometer that has been lost to time and history.

In any case, Thomas Jefferson was one of the most prominent minds of his time, and this list of inventions provides just a little insight into what he achieved.

Editor's note: This article was updated to include more details and reflect recent developments on the subject.

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