Sunday, March 22, 2009

Abe Lincoln: A Patently Clever President

Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship.
That Abraham Lincoln was the only president to get a U.S. patent is not surprising when you consider that like Thomas Jefferson he was an inveterate tinkerer and had a lifelong fascination with mechanical things.

Lincoln became a Whig and later a Republican because those political parties strongly advocated canal building, river commerce and infrastructure improvements for the rapidly expanding republic, while the genesis of his patent was his expertise as a river navigator born of his experience taking flatboats down the Sangamon, Ohio and Mississippi rivers as a teenager in the early 1830s.

During one trip, his flatboat became stranded on a mill dam and took on water. Lincoln sprang into action and had part of the cargo unloaded to right the boat. He then got an auger from a cooper shop, drilled a hole in the bow, let the water run out, plugged the hole and helped move the boat over the dam.

In 1848, on the Great Lakes while on his way home to Illinois from Congress, his boat became stranded on a sandbar. As his longtime law partner William Herndon recalled, the captain ordered the hands to collect loose planks and empty barrels and boxes and forced them under the sides of the boat to buoy it up. The vessel lifted gradually and swung clear of the sandbar.

"Lincoln had watched this operation very intently," Herndon later wrote in his biography of Lincoln. "It no doubt carried him back to the days of his navigation on the turbulent Sangamon. . . . Continual thinking of lifting vessels over sandbars and other obstructions in the water suggested to him the idea of inventing an apparatus for this purpose."

Lincoln hand whittled a scale model of his invention with the help of Walter Davis, a Springfield mechanic who provided tools and advice, and would tinker with it at the office he shared with Herndon, who recalled that "I regarded the thing as impracticable but said nothing, probably out of respect for Lincoln's well-known reputation as a boatman."

In 1849, Lincoln took the scale model to Washington where he hired patent attorney Z.C. Robbins, who filed an application with an affidavit from Lincoln stating that he had "invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable bouyant air chambers with a steam boat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes."

On May 22, 1849, the then 40-year-old Lincoln received Patent No. 6,469 for "A Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals." The device was never marketed. As is the undoing of many a bright idea, the extra weight it added actually increased the probability of running onto sandbars, but a scale model (top photo) is on display at the Smithsonian Institution.

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Lincoln was the first technology president. His mechanical bent included his personal interest in new weapons during the Civil War, including ironclad ships, observation balloons, breech-loading rifles and machines guns.

His fascination with the telegraph extended beyond that then new technology of instantaneous communication. He embraced it with a passion and used it not just to communicate with his generals in the field during the war, but to bend them to his will.

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