Friday, May 22, 2009

This Day in Presidential History (Lincoln Awarded Patent)

May 22, 1849—Patent #6469 was not just any technological scheme. It wasn’t every day, either then or now, that an ex-congressman is awarded this. It’s even rarer when the aspiring inventor is a future American President: Abraham Lincoln.

Jason Emerson’s article in the Winter 2009 issue of American Heritage of Invention and Technology spotlights in fascinating detail how Lincoln conceived the idea of a “device to buoy vessels over shoals,” a technological solution for a problem he had witnessed himself while traveling by steamboat along the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Chicago.

Amazingly, Lincoln was the first—and to this day, the only—U.S. President to be awarded a patent. The reason for this singular phenomenon is worth a short explanation.

If pressed to guess, I would have bet that Herbert Hoover, trained as an engineer, or Jimmy Carter, a longtime peanut farmer and onetime sailor on a nuclear sub who served under Admiral Hyman Rickover, might have tried their hand at this. But that evidently was not the case.

The most likely candidates before Lincoln, of course, were Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. But the Virginia grandees came from a culture in which a disinterested concern for the public weal—or, at least, pretensions to that—dominated. (In Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin, retired from business and intent on carving out a public career, likewise placed philanthropy over profit.)

Emerson traces Lincoln’s interest in the invention to Honest Abe’s experience as a 22-year-old riverboat hand and captain in 1831, when a flatboat he was handling went aground just below New Salem, Ill. 

Though that experience gave him a personal sense of the difficulties of transporting goods and people, he had already demonstrated a vital interest in the subject the year before—when, in his first known potential speech—he advocated improving navigation on the Sangamon River.

I wonder, too, if his interest in technology might not have dated back even further, to childhood and adolescence. I’m talking here about his problematic relationship with his father, Thomas Lincoln.

As most schoolkids know (they used to, anyway), young Abe Lincoln read every chance he could get. This did not please his father, who didn’t see the point of it, especially when there were all manner of chores to be done.

Far from being lazy, Abe was just mentally disengaged from the menial tasks of life on the frontier, even though he excelled at many of them (his nickname “The Railsplitter” was not just campaign hype). 

I’ll bet any money that, as his mind wandered at night before he fell off to sleep, he wondered if there might not be something that could relieve him of his drudgery. This would, among other things:

* free up his time so he could pursue something potentially more lucrative than farming or riverboating, such as the law;
* earn him a considerable sum if the invention caught on; and
* improve the material prospects of his father, a rolling stone who exasperated his son with his inability to get economic traction in his life.

Lincoln’s failure to promote his invention mystifies Emerson. I don’t think this is difficult to imagine—many technical types are more fascinated by how to create a product than how to sell it. But if that is an insufficient explanation for Lincoln’s inaction, here are some other reasons that could account for it:

* The hope that the incoming Taylor administration, ingratitude for his tireless stumping on its behalf in the last Presidential election, would appoint this one-term Congressman as a commissioner of the General Land Office (it didn’t happen—he was tossed the bone of territorial governor of Oregon, which he refused);
* The need to re-establish his law practice in Springfield; or
* The two-month illness and eventual death of his three-year-old son Edward, which would have plunged the melancholic Lincoln into grief—and have an even more devastating effect on his wife.

Though he did not follow up on his own invention, Lincoln became vitally interested in technology, especially patent law, in the next decade. 

On a few occasions, he delivered a “Discoveries and Inventions” lecture in which he spoke of the importance of patents: “The patent system adds the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.” He would take on five different patent cases, including one involving Cyrus McCormick and his reaper.

History aficionados find in Lincolniana an inexhaustible mother lode of arcana about America’s second-greatest President (Washington, I think, ranks first). Honest Abe’s tinkering is just one other aspect of this.

He may not have pursued his dream of technological success, but in the end he came up with a far more important invention: a Second American Republic, free of slavery and open to anyone able to earn whatever he wants by the sweat of his brow, especially young people like himself who dream in the dark about a better life for themselves.

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