#122 on the list of 150 Most Teachable Lincoln Documents


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On This Date

HD Daily Report, March 10, 1849

The Lincoln Log, March 10, 1849

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How Historians Interpret

“. . .Lincoln’s steamboat invention was utilitarian and not simply an exercise of his intellect or a self-aggrandizing means of fame and fortune (although if his model had been manufactured and he had realized some profit, he surely would not have complained or refused).  Growing up as a pioneer farmer and boatman, Lincoln knew the necessity for reliable transportation not just for travel but also to take farm products to market, and he hoped his invention would help facilitate river navigation.  It was the realization of Lincoln’s understanding of the needs of the western American as well as an outgrowth of his long-held political belief in internal improvements.  Lincoln had championed Henry Clay’s American System since his first term as a state legislator in 1834 and continued it into his presidential terms.”

Jason Emerson, Lincoln the Inventor (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2009), 13

“By [November 1860], the outlines of [Lincoln’s] biography had grown familiar.  But readers were surely surprised when the reigning bible of technology, Scientific American—otherwise devoting its latest issue to newly invented carriage wheels and gas meters—focused, too, on an eleven-year-old device for buoying vessels over river shoals.  Neither the blueprint, nor the four-foot wooden model he had first floated in a Springfield trough more than eleven years earlier, had matured to the development phase, and in truth seemed unlikely to work.  But the editors had learned that it had been invented ‘by no less a personage than the President elect of the United States.’  Abraham Lincoln’s 1849 patent (number 6469), though it had failed to attract investors, much less revolutionize river travel as once he had dreamed, now received the full Scientific American treatment, with the would-be inventor’s handmade wooden model exhaustively described and faithfully reproduced in woodcut.  The journal tactfully sidestepped the scientific merits of Lincoln’s idea, gently conceding that ‘we hope the author of it will have better success in presiding as Chief Magistrate over the people of the entire Union than he has had as an inventor.’  But the magazine was clearly impressed, suggesting that Lincoln’s little-known foray into science demonstrated ‘the variety of talents possessed by men’—one man in particular.  In face, no other president before or since has ever held a federal patent.  As the magazine pointed out, ‘it is probable that among our readers there are thousands of mechanics who would devise a better apparatus for buoying steamboats over [sand]bars, but how many of them would be able to compete successfully in the race for the Presidency?'”

Harold Holzer, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter 1860-1861 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2008), 137


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March 10, 1849
…To all whom it may concern:
Be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield, in the county of Sangamon, in the state of Illinois, have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steam boat or other vessel 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; and I do hereby declare the following to be a full, clear, and exact description thereof, reference being had to the accompanying drawings making a part of this specification. Similar letters indicate like parts in all the figures.
The buoyant chambers A. A. which I employ, are constructed in such a manner that they can be expanded so as to hold a large volume of air when required for use, and can be contracted, into a very small space and safely secured as soon as their services can be dispensed with…
…I wish it to be distinctly understood, that I do not intend to limit myself to any particular mechanical arrangement, in combining expansible buoyant chambers with a vessel, but shall vary the same as I may deem expedient, whilst I attain the same end by substantially the same means. What I claim as my invention and desire to secure by letters patent, is the combination of expansible buoyant chambers placed at the sides of a vessel, with the main shaft or shafts C, by means of the sliding spars, or shafts D, which pass down through the buoyant chambers and are made fast to their bottoms, and the series of ropes and pullies, or their equivalents, in such a manner that by turning the main shaft or shafts in one direction, the buoyant chambers will be forced downwards into the water and at the same time expanded and filled with air for buoying up the vessel by the displacement of water; and by turning the shaft in an opposite direction, the buoyant chambers will be contracted into a small space and secured against injury.