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Scale Model of Abraham Lincoln's Patent
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Lincoln's Patent

On May 22, 1849, Abraham Lincoln received Patent No. 6469 for a device to lift boats over shoals, an invention which was never manufactured. However, it eventually him the only U.S. president to hold a patent. Shown here is his scale model at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Lincoln's Love of Inventions

Lincoln displayed a lifelong fascination with mechanical things. William H. Herndon, his last law partner, attributed this to his father, saying, "he evinced a decided bent toward machinery or mechanical appliances, a trait he doubtless inherited from his father who was himself something of a mechanic and therefore skilled in the use of tools."

Henry Whitney, another lawyer friend of Lincoln's, recalled that "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;"

Lincoln also delivered lectures on discoveries and inventions before he became president. "Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship," he noted in 1858. In 1859 he praised the patent laws for having "secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things."

Lincoln and River Navigation

Lincoln learned river navigation early in life and took a flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers as a teenager. As he explained in his 1860 autobiography, "When he was nineteen, still residing in Indiana, he made his first trip upon a flatboat to New Orleans. He was a hired hand merely, and he and a son of the owner, without other assistance, made the trip."

A few years later, Lincoln moved to Illinois and made a second flatboat trip to New Orleans. He recalled, "Abraham, together with his stepmother's son, John D. Johnston, and John Hanks, yet residing in Macon County, hired themselves to Denton Offutt to take a flatboat from Beardstown, Illinois, to New Orleans; and for that purpose were to join him -- Offutt -- at Springfield, Illinois, so soon as the snow should go off. When it did go off, which was about the first of March, 1831, the county was so flooded as to make traveling by land impracticable; to obviate which difficulty they purchased a large canoe, and came down the Sangamon River in it. This is the time and the manner of Abraham's first entrance into Sangamon County. They found Offutt at Springfield, but learned from him that he had failed in getting a boat at Beardstown. This led to their hiring themselves to him for twelve dollars per month each, and getting the timber out of the trees and building a boat at Old Sangamon town on the Sangamon River, seven miles northwest of Springfield, which boat they took to New Orleans, substantially upon the old contract."

What Lincoln omitted from this account was a story of his ingenuity. Before the flatboat could get to the Illinois River, it became stranded on a milldam at New Salem, a small pioneer settlement along the Sangamon. As the boat took on water, Lincoln sprang to action. He had part of the cargo unloaded to right the boat, then secured an auger from the village cooper shop. After drilling a hole in the bow, he let the water run out. Then he plugged the hole, helped move the boat over the dam, and proceeded to New Orleans.

In 1832, as a candidate for the Illinois General Assembly from Sangamon County, Lincoln published his first political announcement, in which he stressed, not surprisingly, the improvement of navigation on the Sangamon River.


© Abraham Lincoln Online
Lincoln's Patent Idea

Lincoln started work on his invention between sessions of Congress in 1848. On his way home to Illinois his boat became stranded on a sandbar. As Herndon told the story, "The captain ordered the hands to collect all the loose planks, empty barrels and boxes and force them under the sides of the boat. These empty casks were used to buoy it up. After forcing enough of them under the vessel she lifted gradually and at last swung clear of the opposing sand bar."

Herndon observed, "Lincoln had watched this operation very intently. It no doubt carried him back to the days of his navigation on the turbulent Sangamon, when he and John Hanks had rendered similar service at New Salem dam to their employer the volatile Offut. Continual thinking on the subject of lifting vessels over sand bars and other obstructions in the water suggested to him the idea of inventing an apparatus for this purpose."

Lincoln created a scale model of his invention with the help of Walter Davis, a Springfield mechanic, who provided tools and advice. Herndon recalled, "Occasionally he would bring the model in the office, and while whittling on it would descant on its merits and the revolution it was destined to work in steamboat navigation. Although I regarded the thing as impracticable I said nothing, probably out of respect for Lincoln's well-known reputation as a boatman."

With some relief Herndon said, "the invention was never applied to any vessel, so far as I ever learned, and the threatened revolution in steamboat architecture and navigation never came to pass."

Lincoln took the scale model with him to Washington and hired attorney Z. C. Robbins to apply for the patent. Part of his application read, "Be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield, in the county of Sangamon, in the state of Illinois, have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant 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..."

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