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Abraham Lincoln: Problem Solver, Innovator, Inventor

By Wendy Swanson

Washington, D.C.

Sunday, August 27, 2022

Lincoln’s original patent model was acquired by the Smithsonian in 1908. This replica was built by the Smithsonian in 1978 for long-term display to preserve the fragile original.

LGDC President David J. Kent provides input for online article: While was working on an article about Abraham Lincoln as a master inventor for the e-zine publication Salon, author Matthew Rozsa reached out to experts on the subject for background information. One of those he contacted was our own historian-scientist, LGDC President David J. Kent. A good choice – after all, David is not only a Lincoln historian but one who has a scientific background.

The themes Rozsa developed in his article – that as a youth, Lincoln “yearned to do great things with his mind, not his hands” and that in his later years, he recognized the importance of scientific innovation -- dovetail those David has been researching and exploring in recent years. Rozsa’s article, “Abraham Lincoln, master inventor: The true story of the only president to ever patent an invention,” was published online yesterday. David’s research has resulted in his upcoming book: The Fire of Genus: How Abraham Lincoln’s Commitment to Science and Technology Helped Modernize America.

Rozsa focuses on Patent No. 6469 – issued to one Abraham Lincoln – for a device “buoying vessels over the shoals.” Lincoln had learned the need for such a device the hard way. When working as a ferryman, he experienced numerous instances when his flatboat got stuck on the shoals and took on water. Such a “river block” resulted in loss of time – and loss of money as cargo often had to be discarded to get the boat moving again. Lincoln’s solution: place “adjustable buoyant air chambers” on the sides of the boat and inflate them as needed to lift the boat over the obstacle.

That leaves the big question: would/did this invention work? There is no evidence the device was ever used or sold.

Enter David Kent, who was asked to weigh in on that question and who is quoted extensively in the Rozsa article. He agreed with research conducted by an Italian industrial designer Ian de Silva, who concluded that the system could have worked but needed a simpler system of ropes, poles, and pulleys to inflate the bellows. (In fact, David provided the author with an article written by de Silva on the subject for a 2018 edition of the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association.) David notes that Lincoln never commercialized the device – he had bigger issues on his mind such as “running a law office and big picture political issues.” Kent observed that patents are often accepted but not commercialized.

David states that “for Lincoln, this was about observing a technical problem and his natural curiosity about how to resolve it.” Problem solving, not generating income, was his goal. He always sought to “better his condition.” At the time slaveholding states were not supportive of such science and technology improvements – seeing in them a potential loosening of their power on the masses performing the work supporting the economy. Political issues of a similar nature, continue today.

David Kent was in good company in providing input for the formulation of this article. Fellow historians, Harold Holzer and Eric Foner – both well-known to Lincoln Group members – furnished input on Lincoln’s passion for infrastructure (haven’t we heard that term frequently in recent months?) development.

Abraham Lincoln: curious problem-solver and innovator. You can explore these themes further by attending the September 13 meeting of the Lincoln Group when David Kent will be launching his new book and speaking on these same Lincoln characteristics.

(Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution)


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