Letter Transcription: David B. Lee To Thomas Jefferson

Source is here (Library Of Congress)




Were I not perfectly convinced of your entire devotion to the welfare and honor of your country, and the genuine patriotic zeal which you have _____ displayed in ___ the _____ _____ of America; I should not dare submit your patronage in the case which I am now going to lay before you –


But being ______ed with the most profound conviction of your truly philosophic mode of deciding on any new theory; and knowing that you are this great a philosopher to suffer your mind to be bound in the vulgar fetters of prejudice which limits our researches for knowledge within the failing created by our forefathers – I shall (although not favored with the honor of your personal acquaintance) submit to you the outlines of the plan of a machine which I have invented for navigating the atmosphere and respectfuly solicit your patronage –


The art of navigating the atmosphere has been my constant study with little exception from my earliest childhood – But being granted for a fool by every person to whom I revealed my subject; I kept it almost an entire secret till early in the year 1819-


I had previous to that devised a plan by which I believed , and still believe, that a balloon may be propelled and steered in any direction with considerable facility – And likewise another plan of far greater importance by which a man can traverse the air in any direction at will, by mechanical power above in perfect safety, regardless of threatening clouds or stormy winds-  But having spent so much time and money in forming my plans and trying experiments, and not being one of fortunes favorites – I had not the means of putting my plans in operation –  But being determined to complete the business – I therefore at the time before mentioned (1819) applyed to several institutions for assistance, most of whom were so prejudiced against the very idea of flying that they would not even give me a hearing – I however found one man who agreed to furnish money to construct a balloon with the necessary apparatus to propel and steer it-  I took him at his offer knowing that if I succeeded in that I could then without difficulty raise the trifling sum necessary to complete my favorite object? of constructing a machine to navigate the air on mechanical principles –


I constructed a balloon with all the necessary apparatus for flying and fixed a day for my first aerial excursion, with the most sanguine expectations that I should soon soar in the uper regions of the atmosphere and show to the world that the Americans could do that which other nations had attempted without success-


But I was doomed to a more _____less fate- While inflating the balloon, an accident happened to the apparatus for preparing the gas which delayed the opperation for several hours and some of the people who were assembled to witness the experiment being ignorant of the subject and disappointed and dissatisfied with the delay rushed in upon the balloon in a mob and completely destroyed it-


This so discouraged my patron that notwithstanding he believed the thing practisable he would give me no more assistance-  Since that time I have mentioned my plans to different people but without success-

—— end page 1———


I have been neither unguarded in speaking publicly of the certainty of sucess , not thinking that I had a rival in the business till quite recently, when James Benets memorial to congress appeared in the news papers-

I then (as you perhaps already know) sent a memorial to congress in opposition to Benet-

Benet informs me that he has studied on the business several years, but I believe that his plan was not matured untill he obtained information from me- But still from some circumstances I am inclined to believe that he is not master of my whole plan, and I am doubtful whether he has a sufficient idea of it, so that he can______ for _____ he do it; as he is rich it would not be delayed.

James Benet is an Irishman by birth, and has resided for many years in England- I would therefore call your particular attention to the honor of the invention which he says in his memorial “shall be conferred on the United States.” Pray sir, how can he confer this honor on the United States- Congress can pass an act granting the right to him and by that means confer the ______iary __________ment on him- But it is impossible for him to confer the honor on the United States, for should there be an act passed in his favor by which congress should declare to the world that he was the inventor – that country which gave birth to his _____ on that in which these interests were matured and brought to perfection will claim the honor of all inventions made by him-


Benet expects _____ to return to England, and what then let me ask will he be to this country- Is it possible that under such circumstances he can confer the honor of the invention on the United States- Born in the British dominions, and residing there to the age of thirty; then coming to this country and spending some years, then returning to England to spend the remainder of his days- What is he at last but an Englishman- England will claim, and on good ground, should an act be passed in Benets favor the sole honor of the invention-


It is believed that Franklin made many discoveries on electricity in Europe, but notwithstanding that America claims all inventions made by him- It will be the same in this case if congress pass an act in Benets favor the honor if there is any attached to it, is immediately conferred on England or Ireland-


But it is doubtful whether congress make any grant to either of us until the machine is in actual operation- Benet has a machine nearly finished, but as I have not seen it, I do not know whether it is on any plan that will succede-


Had I the money necessary to construct a machine, I could build one and appear before congress with it before their session closes- But for the want of three of four hundred dollars, I shall be under the necessity of delaying the business- And perhaps by that means loose my right to this machine which has already lost me several thousand dollars- And if Benet should take advantage of my poverty, and secure the right to himself, which I am confident he will, the United States will surely lose the honor of the invention-


I estimate the expense of these machines (of a size foe one man) at from one hundred and fifty to two hundred dollars- but, as the first of any machines whatever

—–end page 2——–


Always cost nearly double what they may be built for afterwards, I have estimated that it would require about three or four hundred dollars to build the first-


I have made experiments at different times on this machine and from the results of these experiments I have not a doubt but it will be opperate agreeable to my wishes-


I have given you this brief account of my progress in this business that you might have some knowledge of the nature of my claim to the invention-


I likewise referred to the pedigree of Benet, not through any ill will to him on account of his being a foreigner- but merely to apprise you of the danger there was of another nation claiming the honor of the invention.- And likewise to show you the trick which he intended to have played upon our government by making a pretense of conferring the honor of this invention on the United States, when he must have known that if his petition was granted the honor of the discovery would have reverted to his mother country-


I commenced this letter with an intention of giving you a succinct account of the form and opperation of this machine- But having already nearly filled my paper I shall be under the necessity of dismissing the subject with a few remarks only-

In the first place I consider it as one of the great laws of nature from which there is no deviation that all animal beings perform their visible functions on mechanical principles- The nicer points or what might be called invisible opperations, or first cases of visible actions, are not necessary to be discussed for the present purpose-

I presume, Sir, you will _______ with me when I say that all birds and insects fly on pure mechanical principles for it is found by a careful examination of the subject notwithstanding there appears to be a considerable difference in the opperation of different insects and birds, in flying that they all fly on the same principle, with some trifling difference in the mode of application-


Having ascertained the precise form of a bird and all its opperations in flying, in their _____ ______, we then have nothing more to do, to complete the art of flying than to copy this exactly by machinery- But as there are some parts which I found very difficult if not impossible to imitate – I have deviated in other points to endeavor to obviate the difficulties which at first appeared insurmountable- One great difficulty is a want of strength sufficient to correspond with the weight of the man and machine. But this difficulty I have in part obviated by a greater extension of surface to rest on the atmospherewhile the wings are ascending-


I have tried this machine in several different forms – I have three distinct plans either of which may answer – A superficial view of the one on which I rely with perfect confidence of success, would be as follows-

The body or gondola, bears some resemblance to the shape of a boat – the size about eight feet high, three feet broad, and at top from sixteen to twenty feet long- This is made of as light materials as possible- in the middle where the aeronaut stands, or sits, it is more sufficiently strong to support him and the machinery with which he ______s the wings- This is covered with silk except a window on each side near the middle- On the top of the gondola, laying nearly horizontal (but not perfectly, the front end being elevated, say five degrees) is placed an oval sheet of silk enclosing a verry light frame- This sheet or platform may be from ten to twelve feet broad and from twenty to twenty four feet long- across the center of this frame side to side , the frame is sufficiently strong to support the wings, which are attached to each extremity or side – This top part is braced down to the bottom of the gondola to keep it permanent together- The wings for want of room to a more perfect _____tion I will compare both in shape and motion, to the wings of an eagle – the comparison would however been more accurate to have said the wings of a raven, which they very nearly resemble, particularly in motion-

—-end page 3——-


There is a rudder like the _______ of a bird extending back from the top part or sheet, as I before called it, this is to steer it up or down- There is another rudder extending from the back part of the gondola, by which it is steered to the right or left.


The description I have given is very imperfect, but if from the above outlines of the plan, you think the thing practisable – or that the theory is sufficiently plausible to merit an experiment- you are respectfully requested to patronize it, in such manner as your wisdom shall dictate- All favors received will be duly appreciated- and (should I be enabled to complete the business) amply repaid-


If you condescend to answer this, please ______ to David B. Lee Philadelphia


I am, Sir, with ____ considerating respect,

Your Obedient Servant,

  1. B. Lee


Thomas Jefferson, Esq.




Thomas Jefferson

Late President of the United States




About glamberson

I am an amateur genealogist and a professional technologist, having experience in both areas that goes back to the 1980s (at least). My genealogical interests really began in 1979 when my grandfather died. Computers & technology have been primary interests since the early 1980s. My first personal computer was an Apple IIe bought shortly after they first became available.
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One Response to Letter Transcription: David B. Lee To Thomas Jefferson

  1. Pingback: David B. Lee of Philadelphia: Inventor, Flight Pioneer, Dreamer, Attorney (1792-1836) | Greg Lamberson's Genealogy Blog

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