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The founding fathers gave us more than just independence. They gave us tech too

Thomas Jefferson’s polygraph, a letter-copying device with two pens attached. Alex Wong/Getty Images

The first four presidents of the United States — George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — all belonged to the American Philosophical Society. Founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743, the APS’s members were accomplished in the arts and sciences.

As a member of the U.S. Patent Office’s review committee, Jefferson helped establish the approval system. The founding fathers routinely corresponded and met with doctors, natural philosophers, and tinkerers who were designing bridges, agricultural equipment, and submarines before there terms scientist or technology were used as they are today. 

Search the Founders’ letters, and you’ll find notes to, from, or about Joseph Priestly (one of the discoverers of oxygen), Eli Whitney (who corresponded with Jefferson about his cotton gin), and Robert Fulton (of steamboat fame). Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and the others encouraged and assisted their colleagues in improving upon gadgets, structures, and conveyances — including one of the world’s first submarines. 

For the Fourth of July, here’s the most interesting (and surprising) technology the founding fathers had a hand in.

Subversive submersible 

After affixing explosives to a British ship, the one-man crew of the the Turtle submersible was supposed to sail quietly away. By the time the explosion occurred, triggered by a watchwork attached to the gun lock, the Turtle would have gone safely below the waves by taking on water, funneled to chambers in its bottom. When it was time to surface, a pump pushed the water back out. 

Submersible Turtle 1776.
The world’s first submersible, the Turtle, was a one-man sub designed by David Bushnell and Phineas Pratt, who intended to use it to attack the British fleet in New York harbour during the Revolutionary War. SSPL/Getty Images

Thanks to David Bushnell’s design, the passenger would still be able to breathe comfortably beneath the waves. Sitting on a bench in the center of the submerged vessel, he could hand crank a propeller to move at a clip of three miles per hour. It would be dark, but the compass was illuminated by the blue-green of foxfire, a phosphorescent derived from fungi. 

That’s how it was supposed to work, anyway. Franklin visited Bushnell to see his progress on the Turtle, and Washington watched a failed attempt of the pilot to get a mine onto the British ship. Eventually, the Turtle ended up at the bottom of the sea permanently, when the British sunk the ship carrying it in 1776. 

Many of the founding fathers had their own scientific and technical projects. One contemporary called Washington the country’s most “scientific” farmer; his 16-sided barn made processing grain more efficient. Madison warned about soil erosion and “the excessive destruction of timber.” Jefferson has been described as more of an innovator than inventor, having created his own versions of a wheel cipher, dumbwaiter, and polygraph, which made a duplicate of writings. 

A diagram of David Bushnell’s Turtle Submersible.

On Christmas Day, 1750, Benjamin Franklin wrote to his brother John that he was still recovering from an experiment two days earlier. Most of the effects had worn off, but his breastbone still felt bruised. Franklin had been trying to electrocute turkeys. He’d done it before and found the meat “uncommonly tender.” This time, with a dazzling flash of light and loud crack, Franklin had accidentally electrocuted himself. Despite feeling numb and sore the next day, Franklin went on experimenting and advocating for lightning rods to protect buildings and their inhabitants.  

While the lightning rod has undoubtedly saved many lives, another 18th century scientific advancement that involved Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin saved even more. 

“I’ll inoculate you with this” 

In November 1721, the city of Boston was roiling. After a smallpox outbreak, Cotton Mather (a minister perhaps best known for his involvement with the Salem witch trials) enlisted a doctor, Zabdiel Boylston, to start inoculating the city’s occupants. Mather had heard of the practice of variolation from his slave Onesimus, who told him “whoever had ye courage to use it, was forever free from ye fear of the Contagion,” Mather wrote to a friend

We should have more to dread from [smallpox] than from the Sword of the Enemy.

Variolation was a technique that had been used for centuries in China, as well as in the Middle East and Africa. Using ground-up pox scabs or liquid pus from an infected patient, a doctor inserted the material into scratches on a healthy person. Though some died, the majority of the inoculated got a milder form of smallpox and were then immune.

At the same time Mather and Boylston started inoculating Bostonians, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu brought the practice to London. 

Boylston inoculated over 200 people, including his son and several of his slaves. His fellow physicians, however, were against the practice. Newspapers carried screeds against both Mather and Boylston. “The Town is almost become a Hell upon Earth, a City full of Lies, and Murders, and Blasphemies, as far as Wishes and Speeches can render it so,” Mather wrote in his diary. “Satan seems to take a strange possession of it.” A few days later, someone threw a homemade grenade through his window. The fuse dislodged, and it didn’t explode, but it did include a message: “Cotton Mather, you Dog, Dam you: I’l inoculate you with this, with a pox to you.”

Smallpox, the Deadliest Disease in History

Because Boylston kept records, it became clear his inoculations were successful. Though about 2% of his patients died from the variolation, the death rate for smallpox itself was closer to 14%. In 1721, Benjamin Franklin was a teenager apprenticing for his brother James, a printer. James Franklin was printing much of the anti-inoculation material in his paper. But by the 1730s, Benjamin Franklin was a proponent of the practice, especially after the death of his son Francis.

There were rumors that Francis had actually died from a smallpox inoculation, which Franklin denied. “And I suppose the Report could only arise from its being my known Opinion, that Inoculation was a safe and beneficial Practice; and from my having said among my Acquaintance, that I intended to have my Child inoculated, as soon as he should have recovered sufficient Strength from a Flux with which he had been long afflicted,” Franklin wrote in The Pennsylvania Gazette in 1736. 

Waterhouse was concerned about counterfeit or inferior material getting into the cowpox vaccine supply.

Despite Boylston’s success, inoculation wasn’t sufficiently mainstream in the colonies to protect the Continental army during a 1775 smallpox outbreak. The problem was that inoculation was a lengthy process. The inoculated had to be isolated before and after the procedure, first to ensure they didn’t already have the disease and then to ensure they didn’t spread it to others. Many of the army’s soldiers were from rural areas, But the smallpox deaths were coming so fast and thick during the Revolutionary War that Boston was holding between 10 and 30 funerals a day.

Having survived a bout of the disease decades earlier, George Washington was immune. But he suspected the British of using smallpox as germ warfare and wrote, “we should have more to dread from it than from the Sword of the Enemy.” Eventually, Washington decided that inoculation should be mandatory for serving troops and recruits, and the infection rate fell from 17% to 1%. “A compelling case can be made that swift response to the smallpox epidemic and to a policy of inoculation was the most important strategic decision of his military career,”  historian Joseph Ellis wrote of Washington. 

A different kind of pox 

In 1796, English physician Edward Jenner extracted liquid from a pustule on Sarah Nelmes, who was showing symptoms of a case of cowpox after milking an infected cow. Jenner injected the pus into a young boy, then later exposed him to smallpox. The child seemed immune after his cowpox injection. Jenner had long known that milkmaids often seemed to stay healthy during smallpox outbreaks and suspected cowpox had something to do with it. After several more trials, he had proof. Instead of having to suffer through a bout of smallpox, people could be vaccinated with the milder cowpox and get the same immunity. 

Four years later, Benjamin Waterhouse, a doctor in Boston, received a sample of Jenner’s cowpox vaccine. After he vaccinated his son and several members of his house, word began to spread. Other doctors wanted Jenner’s cowpox for their own patients. But Waterhouse wanted to control the supply. While his fellow physicians accused him of wanting a monopoly, Waterhouse said he was concerned about counterfeit or inferior material getting into the supply.  “As this is spurious matter it never produces the requisite symptoms, and of course will not preserve a person from the smallpox, and one unfortunate instance would destroy all our exertions to extend far and wide one of the most important discoveries of modern times,” he wrote. 

A set of lancets, owned by doctor Edward Jenner who ishowed that fluid taken from a human with cowpox could be used more safely for vaccinations than could variolation – inoculating non-infected people with fluid from pustules of smallpox. SSPL/Getty Images

There were a few ways to transport the cowpox lymph, the colorless liquid that came from the pustules on the infected humans. Physicians could soak threads in the lymph, then dry them. These threads could then be sent around the world, rewetted, then implanted in healthy individuals. A lancet dipped in lymph could also be used for a couple of days afterwards, as long as it didn’t start to rust. To prevent this, lancets were made of gold or platinum. Still, by the time the vaccines arrived at their destination, they were often useless. 

One person who did receive some of Waterhouse’s cowpox material was Thomas Jefferson. The first two lymph samples didn’t survive the journey, possibly because of the hot July weather. To combat it, Jefferson suggested Waterhouse put the liquid lymph in small vial, then put that in a larger, water-filled container. “It would be effectually preserved against the air,” Jefferson wrote, and the water would cool down at night to help preserve the lymph. The next sample Waterhouse sent arrived safely. In 1801, Jefferson used the lymph to vaccinate family members, slaves, and neighbors. 

Over the next several years, Jefferson would give cowpox lymph to Little Turtle, chief of the Miami people, and to Lewis and Clark to distribute on their expedition. Once one person was infected with cowpox, arm-to-arm transmission was a more reliable method of vaccination, since it didn’t require preserving the lymph in vials or threads. 

It would take nearly 180 years after Jefferson first received the cowpox vaccine from Waterhouse, but smallpox was eradicated. Still, its potential was clear from early on. In 1805, an acquaintance sent Jefferson a letter, wondering if inoculation would someday be used for the plague or yellow fever. “It would give me great happiness, to become the fortunate man of accelerating the discovery of a remedy, for so great an evil,” he wrote.

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