Historic Politicians You Didn't Know Were Also Inventors

George Washington portrait. Public Domain

It only makes perfect sense that some of the greatest political figures in American History were great at many other things as well. Presidents George Washington and Andrew Jackson, for instance, were accomplished military leaders. Governor and later President Ronald Reagan, for his part, was a notable screen actor.

So maybe it shouldn't be too surprising then that some of the most famous politicians had a knack for inventing. For example, you have President James Madison's well-meaning, but odd walking stick with a built-in microscope. George Washington, meanwhile, also tried his hand at inventing a drill plow and even drew up plans for a 15-sided barn while he was a farmer. Here are a few others. 

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Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, 1763
Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, 1763. Edward Fisher

Besides an illustrious political career that included serving as Postmaster of Philadelphia, Ambassador to France and President of Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin, one of the original founding fathers, was also a prolific inventor. While many of us know about Franklin’s scientific pursuits, primarily from through his experiments in which he demonstrated the link between electricity and lightning by flying a kite with a metal key during a thunderstorm. But less is known about how that same boundless ingenuity also led to several clever inventions – many of which he didn’t even take out a patent on.

Now why would he do this? Simply because he felt that they should be thought of as gifts in the service of others. In his autobiography he wrote, "... as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously."

Here are just a few of his most notable inventions.

Lightning Rod

Franklin’s kite experiments didn’t just further our knowledge of electricity, they also resulted in important practical applications. The most notable of which was the lightning rod. Prior to the kite experiment, Franklin noticed that a sharp iron needle did a better job of conducting electricity better than a smooth point. Hence, he surmised that an elevated iron rod in this form could be used to draw electricity from the cloud to prevent lightning from striking homes or people.

The lightning rod he proposed had a sharp tip and was installed at the top of a building. It would be connected to a wire that ran down the outside of the building, directing the electricity toward a rod buried in the ground. To test out this idea, Franklin performed a series of experiments on his own home using a prototype. Lighting rods would later be installed atop the University of Pennsylvania as well as the Pennsylvania State House in 1752. The largest Franklin lightning rod during his time was installed at the State House in Maryland.

Bifocal glasses

One prominent Franklin invention that’s still used by many people today are Bifocal glasses. In this case, Franklin came up with the design for a pair of glasses that allowed him to see things better close-up and afar as a way to deal with his own aging eyes, which required switching between different lenses when he went from being inside reading to going outside.

To fashion a solution, Franklin cut two pairs of glasses in half and joined them together in a single frame. While he didn’t mass produce or market them, Franklin was credited with inventing them as evidence of his bifocals showed he had used them prior to others. And even today, such frames have remained virtually unchanged from what he had originally devised.

Franklin Stove

Fireplaces back in Franklin’s day were not very efficient. They put out too much smoke and didn’t do a very good job of heating rooms. Thus this meant people had to use more wood and chop down more trees during the chilly winters. This would lead to wood shortages during the winter. One way Franklin went about dealing with this problem was by coming up with a more efficient stove.

Franklin invented his "circulating stove" or the "Pennsylvania fireplace" in 1742.  He designed it so that the fire would be enclosed in a cast-iron box. It was freestanding and was situated in the center of the room, allowing heat to be released from all four sides. There was one major flaw, however. The smoke was vented out through the bottom of the stove and so the smoke would build up rather than be released right away. This was due to the fact that smoke rises.

To promote his stove to the masses, Franklin distributed a pamphlet entitled "An Account of the new-invented Pennsylvania Fireplaces," which detailed the stove’s advantages over convention stoves and included instructions on how to install and operate the stove. A few decades latter, an inventor named David R. Rittenhouse fixed some of the flaws by redesigning the stove and adding an L-shaped chimney.

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson Portrait. Public Domain

Thomas Alva Jefferson was another founding father who’s acclaim included, among many achievements, authoring the Declaration of Independence and serving at the third president of the United States. During his spare time, he also made a name for himself as an inventor who would later set the stage for all future inventors by establishing patent criteria while he served as head of the patent office.

Jefferson’s Plow

Jefferson’s interest and experience in farming and agriculture would be the fodder for one of his more popular inventions: an improved moldboard plow. To improve upon the plowing equipment used at the time, Jefferson collaborated with his son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, who managed much of Jefferson's land, to develop iron and mould board plows for hillside plowing. His version, which he conceptualized through a series of mathematical equations and careful diagrams, enabled farmers to dig deeper than the wooden ones while preventing soil erosion.  

Macaroni Machine

Another dimension of Jefferson worth noting was that he was a man of taste and had a deep appreciation for fine wines and cuisine. He cultivated much of this during the time he spent time in Europe while serving as minister to France. He even brought back a French chef when he returned from his travels and made sure to serve his guests exotic dishes and the best wines from Europe.

To replicate macaroni, a pasta dish from Italy, Jefferson drew up a blueprint for a machine that moved the pasta dough through six little holes to give the shells that classic bent shape. The blueprint was based on notes he took of the technology he encountered while he was in Europe. Jefferson would eventually procure a machine and had it shipped to him at his plantation Monticello. Today, he’s credited for popularizing macaroni and cheese, along with ice cream, french fries and waffles among the American masses.

Wheel Cipher, Great Clock, and Many Others

Jefferson also had several ideas that made life easier during his time. The wheel cipher he invented was developed as a secure way to encode and decode messages. And though Jefferson didn’t use the wheel cipher, it would later be "re-invented" in the early 20th century.

To keep the work on his plantation running on schedule, Jefferson also designed a “Great Clock” that told which day of the week it was and the time. It featured two cannonball weights suspended by two cables that served to display the day and a Chinese gong that chimed the hour. Jefferson designed the clock himself and had a clockmaker named Peter Spurck build the clock for this residence.

Among Jefferson’s other designs were a version of the spherical sundial, portable copying press, a revolving bookstand, swivel chair and dumbwaiter. In fact, it’s been purported that his swivel chair was the chair he sat one when he authored the Declaration of Independence.

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Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln portrait. Public Domain

Abraham Lincoln earned his place on Mount Rushmore and his standing as one of the greatest presidents due to his historical accomplishments when he was in the oval office. But one achievement that often gets overlooked is that Lincoln became the first and still is the only president to hold a patent.

The patent is for an invention that lifts boats over shoals and other obstacles in rivers. The patent was granted in 1849 when he was practicing law after serving a term as an Illinois congressman. It’s genesis, however, began when he was a young man who ferried people across rivers and lakes and had instances where a boat he was on would get hung up or stranded by on shoal or other obstructions.  

Lincoln’s idea was to create an inflatable flotation device that, as they expanded, would lift the vessel above the water’s surface. This would allow the boat to clear the obstacle and continue its course without running aground. Though Lincoln never built a working version of the system, he did design a scale model of a ship outfitted with the device, which is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.