Lincoln Receives Patent #6469 – May 22, 1849

Abraham Lincoln
Mention inventions and presidents in the same breath, and Thomas Jefferson springs to mind.  Indeed, he invented more things than any other president.  Some of his inventions had a world-wide impact, such as his redesign of the plow.  Jefferson never applied for a single patent, however, believing that inventions should benefit the people, not the inventor.
Lincoln, on the other hand, does hold a patent for an invention, and he is the only president to do so.  His patent is for a system of inflatable chambers fixed to the hull of a boat which, when inflated with pump-operated bellows, will lift a grounded vessel off shoals and sandbars enough to float it again.  To support his idea, he and a local mechanic friend, Walter Davis, constructed a scale model, 27 inches long, 5 inches wide, and 10 inches high.  Lincoln did much of the carving in his law office himself, which project his law partner William Herndon observed and dismissed to himself as impracticable. (1)  The Patent Office requires qualifying models to be functional, so Lincoln demonstrated his model successfully in November 1848, in a horse trough near his office, to a group of witnesses.  Then he filled out paperwork and hired fellow lawyer Zenas C. Robbins to submit and process the patent application. (2)
Lincoln’s patent sketch
Lincoln received the patent on May 22, 1849, (one hundred sixty-two years ago this week) during his single term in the U. S. House of Representatives.  Later, during his presidency, he took his little boys to the Patent Office to show them the model, which is now held by the Smithsonian Institution.
Lincoln was fascinated with everything mechanical.  He studied every machine, device, and contraption he encountered.  Although his flotation device was never manufactured (he never promoted it, and the railroad’s rapid expansion into the West made most water transport obsolete), it illustrates his hands-on practicality, an integral part of his mind which most scholars have dismissed as unrelated to his greatness.
Fellow lawyers from Lincoln’s circuit-riding days recalled how Lincoln often entertained their roving body of lawyers and judges.  According to Henry Whitney, one such colleague, “While we were traveling in ante-railway days, on the circuit, and would stop at a farm-house for dinner, Lincoln would improve the leisure in hunting up some farming implement, machine or tool, and he would carefully examine it all over, first generally and then critically; he would ‘sight’ it to determine if it was straight or warped: if he could make a practical test of it, he would do that; he would turn it over or around and stoop down, or lie down, if necessary, to look under it; he would examine it closely, then stand off and examine it at a little distance; he would shake it, lift it, roll it about, up-end it, overset it, and thus ascertain every quality and utility which inhered in it, so far as acute and patient investigation could do it.  …”  Lincoln would not let the item be until he was “completely satisfied that there was nothing more to know, or be learned about it.” (3)
Lincoln’s model to buoy vessels over shoals
Lincoln’s passion for and belief in the power of invention never ceased.  The freedom to invent and the protections of the patent added “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” (4) He believed that the free enterprise resulting from such encouragement would promote the development and expansion of the country, and negate the institution of slavery which he believed hindered the master as much as the slave, intellectually and commercially.

Lincoln had ideas for other inventions, although none of them ever evolved beyond the abstract stage.  He did engage in several legal patent cases, including one involving the well-known McCormick reaper.  Joshua Speed, a store-keeper from whom Lincoln first rented lodging when he came to Springfield as a young lawyer, and who became a life-long friend of Lincoln, related that Lincoln once told him that “his highest ambition was to become the Dewitt Clinton (5) of Illinois.” (6)  Nine years following receipt of his patent, Lincoln prepared a lecture about the importance of discoveries and inventions, which he gave six times, the lecture being a highly popular form of entertainment and education in the mid-1800s. 
Jason Emerson, in his recently published “Lincoln the Inventor” (2009), states, “The story of Lincoln’s invention … show[s] the mechanical genius of his mind and his way of thinking and analyzing, his penchant for expanding his learning and understanding disciplines other than politics, his fidelity to the political belief of internal improvements, his attempts at scholarly lecturing, and his admiration and fostering of invention and innovation as president.  To understand Lincoln the inventor is to better understand Lincoln the man.” (2)
(1) William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, “Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life” (1889)
(2) Jason Emerson, “Lincoln the Inventor” (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009)
(3) Henry Clay Whitney, “Life on the Circuit with Lincoln” (Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1940).
(4) Abraham Lincoln, “Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions,” Basler, editor, “The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln” (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953)
(5) DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York during the 1820s among other political offices, was the man who made the Erie Canal a reality, connecting the interior of the continent to international trade centers, and opening it up to development, internal improvements, commerce, and industry.
(6) Joshua Speed, interview by William Herndon, 1865-1866, Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, “Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln” (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998)
– Smithsonian National Museum of American History
– Post-nomination photo of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Hessler of Springfield, IL, June 1860.

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