Links and some background on the Jefferson Desk
This is the desk featured in an article I wrote for Fine Woodworking Magazine's October, 2000 issue #144. It was my great privilege to receive a grant from Taunton Press and a commission from the Smithsonian to build a replica of the Desk for the Smithsonian. With a team from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, I studied, measured and photographed the original Desk in one of the Smithsonian Labs. Back in my shop in California, I built the replica for the Smithsonian.
Thomas Jefferson's 18th Century Version of a Laptop.
In the exhibit on the Presidents in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., lies a cherished National Treasure; a small but precious artifact, tantalizingly close at hand inside a clear plastic enclosure. Little more than the size of a legal pad and about three inches tall, the little desk is the 18th century equivalent of a lap top computer designed and used by Thomas Jefferson. In May of 1776, thirty-three year old Jefferson had an idea. His 200-mile coach rides from his home in Virginia named Monticello, to the Continental Congress meeting at Independence Hall in Philadelphia could be more productive, he thought, if he could do some reading and writing on the way. Sketching his idea for a portable lap desk that would hold reading and writing materials, he gave the drawing to Benjamin Randolph, a Philadelphia cabinetmaker. Following Jefferson's drawings, Randolph crafted the desk out of mahogany using exquisitely small dovetails in the drawer, hand made screws to fasten the hinges and a small satinwood inlay for decoration. When opened, the desk offers a felt-covered, comfortably slanted writing surface. The lid's support arms have different notches so Jefferson could change the angle of the top when he wished. Folded half way, it becomes a book rest. A recess in the underside of the lid to house the arms allows the lid to close completely. The single drawer has compartments for an ink well, writing quills or nibs and a place for important papers. This extraordinary writing desk, weighing but five pounds, is the result of Jefferson's ability to invent the obvious; a portable desk in which he could keep all of his supplies and with which he could comfortably write no matter where he was. Jefferson used the desk for the next fifty years. Constantly in his personal possession, it accompanied him wherever he went. In 1825, just a few months before his death, Jefferson gave the desk to his granddaughter Ellen and her husband Joseph Coolidge. Soon after Coolidge's death in 1880, his children gave the desk to the U.S. Government for safekeeping. Museum goers, trudging through the exhibit, can be forgiven for overlooking this significant fragment of American History, what with the splendor of more eye-catching artifacts like Lincoln's top hat in near-by glass cases. But there it sits, a treasure for the more observant; it's place in U.S. history significant in many ways, not the least of which, that it was the very instrument Jefferson used while he wrote the Declaration of Independence when the little lap desk was brand new.
The late Silvio Bedini wrote a wonderful little book about the Desk. He details the remarkable
history of it in wonderful detail. This link takes you to the Amazon page where you can find a copy.
Sculptor George Lundeen made this life sized bronze of Jefferson with the little Writing Desk in his lap. It's so realistic it's almost as if you could sit right there next to Jefferson and have a conversation, but since he's thinking you wouldn't want to interrupt. This photo was taken at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.