Abraham Lincoln, Master Inventor: The True Story of the Only President to Patent an Invention
When you think of Abraham Lincoln, your mind probably conjures up an image of a tall, lanky man with a chinstrap beard and a stovepipe hat. Perhaps you also think of the 16th president’s most famous accomplishments – winning the Civil War and freeing slaves – or his youth, much of which was spent reading and writing even when his family wanted whether he is engaged in physical labor. Like many young dreamers throughout history, Lincoln aspired to do great things with his mind, even as his peers insisted that he continue the work in his hands.
This probably explains why he is the only American president to have patented an invention.
On May 22, 1849, just three months after the Kentuckian native celebrated his 40th birthday, the United States Patent Office issued Patent No. 6,469 for a device “beaconing ships on shoals” . The impetus for this invention was Lincoln’s harsh experience; as a smuggler navigating boats along the Sangamon and Mississippi rivers, he had repeatedly been frustrated when his flatboat ran aground and took on water. On one occasion, while he and several other men were attempting to get to New Orleans, their flatboat ran aground on a dam (a dam built across a stream to raise the water level of a mill to water) near the small pioneer settlement of New Salem.
Having your flatboat stuck on a regular basis today would be tantamount to dealing with massive traffic jams or seeing your car constantly stalling.
As the boat took on water, Lincoln rose to the challenge. To right the boat, he jettisoned some of their cargo, then bought an auger so he could drill a hole in the bow of the ship and let the water out. Once this was accomplished, Lincoln plugged the hole and then worked with the rest of the crew to move the boat over the dam. They succeeded, and soon he was back on his way to New Orleans.
Although Lincoln rarely shared this anecdote with people he met later in life, it obviously stuck with him the moment it happened. In the mid-19th century Mississippi Valley, rivers were today the equivalent of roads and highways; people needed it for easy transportation. Having your flatboat stuck on a regular basis today would be tantamount to dealing with massive traffic jams or seeing your car constantly stalling. In other words, it was a big problem – and Lincoln clearly thought he could solve it.
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Hence its invention. Lincoln’s idea was to place “adjustable floating inner tubes” on the sides of any boat crossing a river. Clearly inspired by the financial loss he had suffered by spilling some of his cargo the last time he ran aground, Lincoln’s patent specifically mentioned that it would allow ships to reduce their water intake and pass over bars or shallow water “without unloading their cargo.” Indeed, the invention, once launched, could in theory be inflated to simply lift a boat above the various obstacles.
At least, that was Lincoln’s inventive intent. To our knowledge, his device was never sold or used by anyone, with former Lincoln business partner and biographer William Herndon dismissing it as “a perfect failure”. Still, in a 2018 article for the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, industrial designer Ian De Silva conducted a number of experiments to see if Lincoln’s invention could have worked. It’s not, but not because the future president got the science wrong.
“On the contrary, it was a prescient and scientifically defensible concept,” de Silva wrote. “Where Lincoln got it wrong in the workmanship, particularly its complicated pole and rope system which made it an obnoxious contraption. If he had devised a simpler, less intrusive way to inflate his bellows, the Grand Emancipator could also have been called back for Emancipation of a different sort – releasing captured boats from the river sand.
“…it was a prescient and scientifically defensible concept,” de Silva wrote. “Where Lincoln got it wrong was in the execution…”
David J. Kent, president, chairman of the Lincoln Group of DC and author of the new book “The Fire of Genius: How Abraham Lincoln’s Commitment to Science and Technology Helped Modernize America,” told Salon via email that he believes he also that Lincoln’s invention was likely to have worked in practice without the “cumbersome system of ropes, posts, and pulleys”. He also pointed out that Lincoln’s inability to make money from the invention had less to do with his engineering abilities than with more mundane realities.
“It’s common for patents to pass acceptance standards but never be commercialized,” Kent pointed out. “Lincoln made no attempt to market his design. He was too busy running a law firm and dealing with big political issues.”
At the same time, the invention is most notable for what it tells future historians about Lincoln’s character – and here we must return to the young boy who found farm life boring and yearned to indulge his natural intellectual interests.
“For Lincoln, it was about observing a technical problem and his natural curiosity about how to solve it,” Kent explained. “He never planned on trying to make money out of it; solving the problem was his goal. He hated the subsistence farming life he was born into and was intellectually curious. He was always looking to ‘improve his condition”. He did so through self-study, augmenting his meager formal schooling (less than a year in total) with many hours of reading, writing, and problem-solving in his head. until he feels he has understood them perfectly.”
One can also glean something about Lincoln’s political philosophy through his invention. In his mind, scientific innovation and improved infrastructure were moral imperatives as well as matters of personal interest.
“Lincoln was a strong believer in what we call infrastructure as the key to economic development and general prosperity,” said Columbia University historian Eric Foner, author of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men : The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War”. “, Salon said by e-mail. “His invention was connected with his support to make the Sangamon River more navigable, to stimulate the development of New Haven.” Although the development of American railroads changed transportation in America , Lincoln “delivered a speech several times in the 1850s on the history of inventions.” He was a firm believer in the value of knowledge and how it could be used for the good of mankind.
“For Lincoln, it was about observing a technical problem and his natural curiosity about how to solve it,” Kent explained.
Harold Holzer, also a renowned scholar on the life and times of Lincoln, told Salon last year that Lincoln’s former political affiliation as a member of the Whig party further explained his passion for infrastructure. Lincoln had “always passionately believed in infrastructure, including government investment in railroads, canals and roads”, as did Whig party leader Henry Clay, and as president this led him to do pressure for big projects like the construction of a transcontinental railroad.
Tellingly, Lincoln’s support for investments in science and technology put him on the wrong side of the racists of his time.
“Generally, slave states have rejected science and technology,” Kent wrote to Salon. “They, like many do today, said it was because they thought it would give the federal government too much power. In reality, it was because they feared it would loosen their power over enslaved African Americans and poor white Southern farmers.”
In contrast, “Lincoln saw science and technology (and education) as a way to improve democracy by ensuring that all of its citizens could ‘improve their condition.'” This conflict between those who see America as a large democracy where we all have an equal chance and those who see America best served by a powerful leadership class overseeing the masses has defined our history and continues to this day.”