Hey, happy Lincoln’s birthday! Abe would have been 206 today, and the US Patent and Trademark Office took the chance to remind us of a strange and oft-forgotten fact: The United States’ 16th president is the only one to ever hold a patent. And a very interesting patent, at that.
Lincoln’s patent was only #6469 in the USPTO’s system, and it was filed March 10, 1849, 12 years before Lincoln would take office. At this point, Abe was still a rural lawyer in Illinois, and in a way, explains a lot about the idea he patented. But first, what exactly does old #6469 describe? A method for “buoying vessels over shoals”. Sounds mundane, but let’s look closer.
Lincoln’s idea was essentially an innovation to shipbuilding: He imagined a series of fabric balloons or bladders that attached to the edges and undersides of a ship — and inflated to lift the boat higher above the waterline in the shallows. Thus, Lincoln explained, the bladders would “enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes.”
That language is actually very telling: As a boy, Lincoln spent a fair amount of time on the rivers and lakes of the Midwest. Some sources claim he was inspired by his experiences as a laborer on flatboats as a teenager — which included a anecdote in which his boat was grounded on the Sangamon River. Others, like biographer Ronald C. White, say it was inspired by getting suck on a sandbar while working as a prairie lawyer, travelling through Illinois for much of the year.
A model of the system. David and Jessie/CC
Hilariously, the engineer who helped him build a scale model had the following to say about the project:
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.
Sadly, not much came of the idea. A little more than a decade after he filed the invention, he’d be sworn in as president of a country on the edge of a civil war.
Although, in Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin did manage to use the patent as a solid burn to describe the failure of Lincoln’s early days in the House: “Unfortunately, no analogous device existed to refloat a political career run aground.” Booyah.