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Abraham Lincoln, Inventor

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Model of Lincoln’s patent, 1849. Image courtesy of Division of Political and Military History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution.

In the fall of 1848, a one-term congressman from Illinois returned home from Washington, D.C.,via a trip through the Great Lakes. While on the Detroit RiverCongressman Lincoln observed the crew of a steamer that had run aground wedge empty casks and barrels under the vessel’s gunwales to increase its buoyancy. The attempt worked and gave Lincoln an idea that he would use to apply for a patent the next year. Lincoln’s concept was to use sacks inflated by bellows carried by a grounded vessel to provide it with buoyancy. Over the late fall, back in Illinois, he would formulate his invention and prepare to submit it to the Patent Office for a patent.

Lincoln worked with a local mechanic in Springfield to create a model of his device. At the time, models were still required as a part of the process of securing a patent for an invention. Upon his return to Washington for the second session of the 30th Congress, Lincoln contacted a patent attorney to draft the paperwork for the application. Lincoln’s paperwork and fee were submitted shortly after the adjournment of Congress in March, 1849. His patent was granted on May 22, 1849.

Lincoln never profited from his patent so it remains something of a historical curiosity. Although Jefferson was a greater and more practical inventor, the improved moldboard plow being perhaps his most useful invention, he never sought to patent any of his devices. At this time, Lincoln, a self-educated man, remains the only president to ever have been awarded a patent.  As president, Lincoln would take many steps to promote the sciences and inventions, including approving laws creating the Department of Agriculture and the National Academy of Sciences.

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