By David J. Kent
Sunday, May 23, 2021
Abraham Lincoln is the only president ever to get a patent, for “an improved method of getting vessels over shoals.” He submitted his patent application on March 10, 1849. It was approved on May 22nd. The story leading up to the patent had begun years before.
Soon after moving to Illinois at the age of 21, Lincoln took his second flatboat trip to New Orleans. Early in the trip his flatboat found itself stuck on the New Salem mill dam. A heroic and ingenious escape involving a bored hole in the bow of the boat put him back on his way. He was so enamored with the people of New Salem that he moved there upon his return.
Years later the lawyer Lincoln tried several patent cases. He also served a term in the U.S. Congress. After his first session in Congress he toured New England campaigning for Zachary Taylor as the Whig nominee for president. Lincoln then took a roundabout route past Niagara Falls and through the Great Lakes by steamship, and along the newly opened Illinois and Michigan Canal on his way back to Springfield. While passing through the Detroit River he witnessed another steamboat stuck on a shoal. The captain ordered crew to jam logs, boards, barrels, and anything else floatable under the hull of the ship. It worked, and the ship was able to free itself from the obstruction.
Always observant, Lincoln noted this effort and upon arriving back to his legal practice in Springfield started sketching out a method for rectifying the problem. Lincoln’s invention “combine[d] adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steam boat 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.” With the help of a local woodworker he constructed a wooden model. He also hired a patent lawyer in Washington to help him prepare the application.
He received Patent No. 6469. The system was never put to practical use, but it demonstrated Lincoln’s analytical mind and interest in technology, skills that often came into place in his court cases.