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Lincoln the Inventor

February 28, 2018

Abraham Lincoln had a lot of experience navigating the waters of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.  Sometimes the channel was not deep enough for normal passage.  Sometimes there were bad surprises.  Wouldn’t it be nice if one could anticipate those surprises and overcome them with a ready-made solution?

Seventeen years after his flatboat got stuck on the Camron-Rutledge mill dam Lincoln was a Congressman.  The Whig candidate for President that year was General Zachary Taylor, and Lincoln, the sole Whig from Illinois, had just made a speaking tour of New England in order to get the General elected.  Lincoln’s return route took him via steamboat from Buffalo to Chicago.  To get from Lake Erie to Lake Huron one must first travel up the Detroit River to Lake St. Clair.  Somewhat past the halfway mark is Fighting Island, and here Lincoln saw that another steamboat had run aground.

The captain of the grounded steamboat ordered all the empty barrels and loose planks to be placed under the sides in order to lift the boat out of the shallow water.  For the remainder of his homeward journey Lincoln considered whether it might be possible to build an emergency buoyancy system to handle this problem.

Within eight weeks, and with the help of a local mechanic, Lincoln had constructed a working model of such an emergency system.  His law partner was not impressed, but the patent office took Lincoln seriously.  His idea was to place inflatable chambers on both sides of the boat.

In 1908 the Smithsonian acquired Lincoln’s original model.  Patent No. 6,469, for “An Improved Method of Buoying Vessels Over Shoals,” is the only patent registered by someone who later became President of the United States.

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