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Tabletop Argand Lamp

Artist/Maker: Possibly Matthew Boulton (1728-1809)

Created: 1786

Origin/Purchase: England

Materials: Sheffield plate

Dimensions: 17.8 × 9.5 (7 × 3 3/4 in.)

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by gift to Charles Thomson; by descent to an unidentified Thomson descendant; by purchase to Harrold E. Gillingham; by purchase to Henry Francis du Pont; Winterthur Museum

Historical Notes: During his tenure in France Jefferson constantly observed and made note of all kinds of innovations, which he eagerly shared with his correspondents in the United States. His interest in promoting the "new" and "innovative" led him in several instances to become a supplier of goods not yet available in the United States. Jefferson wrote to James Madison and Charles Thomson (secretary of the Continental Congress) in 1784 about the Swiss scientist Ami Argand's invention of a bright-burning lamp with a hollow wick, describing it as giving "a light equal as is thought to that of six or eight candles."1

Jefferson was particularly intrigued by Argand's idea because he had accomplished an advance that Benjamin Franklin had only attempted. Jefferson wrote to Thomson:

The improvement is produced by forming the wick into a hollow cylinder so that there is a passage for the air through the hollow. The idea had occurred to Dr. Franklin a year or two before: but he tried his experiment with a rush, which not succeeding he did not prosecute it.2

Both Madison and Thomson, as well as Richard Henry Lee, requested that Jefferson procure Argand lamps for them. Jefferson found during a visit to John Adams in London that the lamps there were superior to the Parisian examples.3 While Argand was working in London with Matthew Boulton and James Watt to perfect the manufacture of his lamp, numerous Parisian lampmakers were producing lesser-quality versions.4

In March and April 1786, while in London, Jefferson purchased a total of three "plated reading lamps," possibly from Matthew Boulton, and "blue lamp chimneys."5 He sent one lamp to Charles Thomson, another to Richard Henry Lee, and presumably kept the third for himself.6 Of the three, only Thomson's lamp is known to survive. After receiving the lamp in July 1780, Thomson acknowledged Jefferson's gift:

The [lamp] you have now sent is an elegant piece of furniture, if it were not otherwise valuable on account of its usefulness. I am informed this kind of lamps is coming into use in Philadelphia and made there.7

-Text from Stein, Worlds, 419

Further Sources

  • 1. Jefferson to James Madison, Paris, November 11, 1784, in PTJ, 7:505 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Charles Thomson, Paris, November 11, 1784, in ibid., 7:518 (transcription available at Founders Online).
  • 2. Jefferson to Thomson, Paris, November 11, 1784, in ibid., 7:518 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Rev. William Smith, February 19, 1791, in ibid., 19:112 (transcription available at Founders Online).
  • 3. Jefferson to Richard Henry Lee, London, April 22, 1786, in ibid., 9:397-98. Transcription available at Founders Online.
  • 4. Argand fought and largely lost the battle over patent rights to the cylinder lamp in England and France. See Michael Schrøder, The Argand Burner: Its Origin and Development in France and England, 1780-1800 (Odense, Denmark: Odense University Press, 1968), 43-57.
  • 5. Jefferson, March 27, 1786, in MB, 1:615 and April 30, 1786, in ibid., 1:625.
  • 6. Richard Henry Lee to Jefferson, New York, October 29, 1785, in PTJ, 8:685 (transcription available at Founders Online); Jefferson to Richard Henry Lee, London, April 22, 1786, in ibid., 9:397 (transcription available at Founders Online).
  • 7. Thomson to Jefferson, New York, July 8, 1786, in ibid., 10:102. Transcription available at Founders Online.
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