Abraham Lincoln is the president of the USA who has left the most indelible mark on the history of this great country. Nevertheless, if I have dedicated this entry to this politician that went down in history as the most popular US president, it is because he also had a strong influence on the patent world. In a previous post ,devoted to politicians who were also inventors,I already higlighted that Abraham Lincoln filed a patent application.

During his adolescence and young adulthood he used to sail along the Missisipi river and on several occasions he reached New Orleans from Illinois , where he lived. He was often faced with the problem of the ship running aground because of sandbanks. Lincoln tried to design a system that would allow boats to overcome those sandbanks, without the need of applying a huge force as he had often witnessed. He invented a ship comprising a plurality of floats that could be inflated whenever there was a need to get over a sandbank. The application US6469 was entitled “Buoying Vessels over Shoals” and was filed in 1847 when Lincoln was staying in Washington as a member of congress. The patent was granted on the 22nd of May in 1849.

Patent US6469 (Abraham Lincoln)

In those years, it was necessary to file a model simultaneously with the patent application. There was a fire at the USPTO in 1877 that destroyed most of those models but this one was preserved and is exhibited in one of the Smithsonian museums. The invention was never manufactured and experts believe it would not have worked properly.

Abraham Lincoln had a strong attraction towards inventions and patents and as a lawyer was involved in patent-related litigation. Furthermore, he gave two famous speeches on inventions and patents, which are going to be analysed.

The first speech (First Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions) was delivered on the 6th April 1858 at the Association of young men in Bloomington (Illinois). Before plunging into the first lecture, Lincoln’s religious education must be considered. He was raised in a very religious Baptist family. His parents Thomas and Nancy believed that the Bible was infallible and the source of the divine truth. As a result, he had a thorough knowledge of the Bible and as can be seen in both speeches, he would make frequent references to it and quoted it very often.

Lincoln begins his first lecture by highlighting what he believes is the main difference between human beings and animals: the ability to change, evolve and improve through work:

“Beavers build houses as they did 5.000 years ago… Man is not the only animal who labors, but he is the only one who improves his workmanship”

“This improvement, he effects by discoveries and inventions” “Whereas animals are feeders and lodgers, humans are miners”.

It is then that his first reference to the Genesis appears, because according to Lincoln the first discovery of human beings was to become aware of being naked:

“His first important discovery was the fact that he was naked, thus his first invention, the fig-leaf apron”.

Therefore, Lincoln concludes that the fig-leaf apron was humankind’s first invention, in other words, the invention of clothing. That leads him to go over all mentions to textile technology than can be found throughout the Genesis.

Afterwards, his attention is drawn to metals, after what the Genesis tells about Noah’s Ark and defines iron and the manufacture of iron-made tools as a miracle:

 “How could the gopher wood for the Ark have gotten out without an axe?”

“It seems to me an axe, or a miracle, was indispensable.”

Lincoln also refers to the frequent relationship between iron and brass in the Old Testament, which makes him conclude that brass was used by the “ancients” with the same purpose. His next reflection is about transportation, always with the Bible as the main authority.

“The oldest recorded allusion to the wheel and axle is the mention of chariot” (Genesis 41-43)

Regarding boats and ships, he says that their advantages are less obvious. The next inventions Lincoln refers to, belong to the field of agriculture: the plough, the saddle, etc.

He then moves onto the field of energy by reflecting upon the wind and something that has not been yet fully resolved: The difficulty of harnessing it.

“Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power……… And yet it has not, so far in the world’s history, become proportionably valuable as a motive power…… as yet, no very successful mode of controlling, and directing the wind, has been discovered…. The wind is an untamed and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to me made, will be taming, and harnessing of the wind…”

After a brief commentary on the use of water streams as a driving force, something that, to his surprise, was never mentioned in the Bible, he focuses on the use of steam as an energy source, which he admits is a modern invention. Lincoln lived at a time when steam played a key role in the industrial revolution. Despite acknowledging the modernity of steam, he mentions an ingenious toy built 2.000 years before in Alexandria (Egypt) that was powered by steam and how its creator never came up with the idea of using steam as a driving force for large machinery.

At this point this speech finishes abruptly and therefore its end remains unknown to this day.

The second speech, which would become the most popular one, was delivered on the 6th of April 1858 in Jacksonville (Illinois). There is almost an exact coincidence with the first lecture in the first half of this second speech. The novel part begins by comparing the US youth at that time, which Lincoln calls “young America” with the human beings of antiquity or “old fogy” represented by Adam, as the first man. According to Lincoln, the main difference between the “young America” that had the world at its feet and the first human beings, who were at the mercy of nature, is represented by discoveries, inventions and improvements.

 “The great difference between Young America and Old Fogy, is the result of Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements. These, in turn, are the result of observation, reflection and experiment.”

Afterwards, Lincoln ponders about the wonder of spoken language and writing, which he defines as the greatest invention of humankind. He then lists a series of inventions and historic events, which together with writing made possible for the “America” of the time the technological progress it enjoyed and which he thought to be above that existing in most parts of the world:

  • The invention of printing (1436) almost 3.000 years after the invention of writing.
  • The discovery of America (1492)
  • The first patent laws (1624)
  • The Lutheran reformation (1567)
  • The invention of negroes, or, of the present mode of using them (1434) (First recorded capture of African slaves by the Portuguese).

Lincoln thought that “America”’s success could be attributed to its young age because he states:

“In anciently inhabited countries, the dust of ages — a real downright old-fogyism — seems to settle upon, and smother the intellects and energies of man. It is in this view that I have mentioned the discovery of America as an event greatly favouring and facilitating useful discoveries and inventions.”

The speech concludes with a paragraph that has gone down in history, at least in the patent world:

 “Next came the Patent laws. These began in England in 1624; and, in this country, with the adoption of our constitution. Before then [these?], any man might instantly use what another had invented; so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention. The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.”

Abraham Lincoln’s quote on patents (On a doorway facade of the United States Department of Commerce, Washington, DC, USA.) (From Wikipedia Commons)

This speech, delivered by the most relevant president of the United States of America, who was also inventor and owner of a patent, could explain the technological leadership the USA has had for the last 200 years. It is very revealing that just a few decades after the beginning of the modern patent system, Lincoln considered the appearance of the first  patent laws as a milestone of paramount importance that enabled the USA achieve the economic dominance it already enjoyed. Lincoln went down in history thanks to his role in abolishing slavery in the USA and his victory in the American civil war. This last spring has seen an outbreak of violence in the USA, due to an episode of police violence and racism. This crisis has brought about numerous reflections upon the alleged existence of racism in the USA. I do not know the USA first-hand, so I distance myself but it seems, as Lincoln hints in his speech, that slavery played a key role in the transformation of the USA into an economic powerhouse. The subsequent civil war left wounds that have yet to be healed.

The patent world in the USA of the nineteenth century was no stranger to slavery. This patent US11537*, filed in 1854, refers to a machine for planting cottonseed and has no qualms whatsoever about admitting the existence of slaves on the plantations:

 “Numerous machines have been made for planting cotton-seed, most of which are either so complicated that the slaves cannot manage them to advantage…..”

Patent US11537

What’s more, as can be seen in this essay, in 1858 the USA Attorney General published an opinion under the title “Invention of a Slave” declaring inventions by African Americans, enslaved and free, unpatentable. The reasoning was that slaves were not citizens and thus could not request patents. The opinion was released because the owner of a plantation in Missisipi filed a patent application designating one of his slaves as the inventor.


Lincoln can be regarded as the epitome of a politician and ruler interested in inventions and their protection by patent. It is therefore not at all surprising that his country has stood out because of its inventiveness over the last 200 years. This entry also shows that slavery, whose consequences are still vivid in the USA, was one of the factors that contributed to its economic and technological take-off and it also left its mark in the world of patents.

Leopoldo Belda Soriano

*Patent provided by Pablo Paz

Proofread by Ben Rodway

En español


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