When we think of Abe Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, we normally default to the major accomplishments of his presidency. He oversaw one of the darkest, if not the darkest time period in American history, he emancipated the slaves, he delivered speeches like the Gettysburg Address that still resonate with Americans today. Through all of this he stood (both literally and figuratively) tall amongst his fellow men and to this day, Lincoln is one of the most universally revered figures in the history of our country. But there was another side of the man that most people do not know about. The tinkerer, curious inventor, technically proficient lawyer, and lover of all things mechanical. Yes, Abe Lincoln was a gearhead and he is the only president to hold a patent in his own name. We’ll get to the device later, but let’s shed a little more light onto the mechanical side of this great man.
If you are any student of history you know that Lincoln was born in Kentucky and had the humblest of beginnings, spending his earliest times in a one room log cabin. Through his youth, Lincoln’s father Thomas was a farmer, a carpenter, and a doer of virtually any sort of job that floated by. Farming was the family’s primary occupation and from this life we believe Lincoln’s mechanical fancies were born. There are lots of stories about how Abe spent many more hours reading than performing physical labor on the farm and how his family thought that he disliked physical labor. If this is the case, it would explain Lincoln’s later fascination with mechanized farm equipment and the role it was playing in the agricultural world at large. Lincoln was basically self taught and when he was old enough pursued a career as a lawyer. He became a circuit lawyer which meant that he would travel over large areas for months at a time trying cases large and small, mostly small. Typically during these sojourns he would sleep at farm houses or wherever they could find a room. There are stories of Lincoln asking to see and then spending lots of time with the mechanical threshing equipment and other rudimentary mechanized farm implements of the day, analyzing them and generally studying how they worked.
He got a reputation as a solid lawyer and as his stature grew, so the did the nature of his cases, especially those that revolved around technical things. In 1855 Lincoln was hired on as one of the lawyers for the McCormick-Manny case, which was a trial that would essentially decide if John Manny had infringed on the patent of Cyrus McCormick’s reaper. After meticulous prep work, countless hours of study, and knowing that this was a huge break in his legal career, Lincoln was crushed when the lead attorneys on the case decided that he was not going to be speaking in front of the court. They cited his appearance and the manner in which he carried himself. His voice was described as high pitched and apparently when he got on a roll it really reached for the high octaves. He was not the most put together guy and essentially he looked like a small town lawyer who was in over his head. One of the men who decided to keep Lincoln quiet was Edwin M. Stanton, a man Abe would later appoint his secretary of war. Amazing.
Locomotives and steam boats really got Lincoln excited because they were the two primary means of moving people and good around the country during his time in the Illinois area. Railroads were expanding west and steam boat operators were starting to understand the virtually limitless possibilities of what trains could do versus their own severely limited possibilities with being confined to not only rivers but rivers deep enough and wide enough for them to navigate. These two things collided (literally) in 1856 when a steam boat collided with the first bridge that had been built across the Mississippi River to allow trains to reach Davenport, Iowa. Lincoln defended the bridge owners in this case which was landmark because if the courts had decided for the steamboat owner, the bridge would likely have been destroyed and the notion of bridge building over large bodies of water would have been stunted for years. Thankfully, progress cannot be stopped through the courts or otherwise.
During this trial, Lincoln studied everything about navigation, bridge construction, water currents, and the evolution of how people were moving themselves and their things. Here’s where the patent comes in.
Jumping back to 1849, Lincoln became kind of obsessed with an idea he had about a shipboard system that could be used on boats for the purpose of freeing themselves from obstructions. Lincoln had spent plenty of time on river boats and he had spent plenty of time being stuck on one that caught a sand bar or was otherwise hung up.
During one such episode, he witnessed a captain have his crew throw whatever objects that floated under the boat. All of the various pieces of wood, barrels, and whatever else was used, got the boat buoyant enough to get off the obstruction and carry on its merry way.
That seemed haphazard to Lincoln but he had personally witnessed the whole scene working. He then set forth and designed the system you’ll see below which was basically four huge bellows (two per side) that were guided by long poles. These bellows would be loaded into the water and then inflated to essentially raise the ship, escape from the hangup, and continue on. The bellows would then return to their resting position, all ready to be deployed again when the next shoal or obstruction occurred. Lincoln was sure that he had a winner on his hands. He had models built, he spoke about a potential “revolution” in steam boat travel because of this device. Unfortunately for him he ended up with a patent (#6469) and a model. No one ever used this on a boat and there’s not a lot of evidence that he was openly chasing people to adopt it.
Knowing this, you can understand his excitement at having a chance at trying the Rock Island Bridge case because he was familiar with the river and the boating world already. Prior to that you had to know he was excited to be on the reaper case as well and was completely decimated when these “big city” lawyers didn’t think he was fit to address the jury. Through his presidency, the Civil War, and all of the technological advancements that conflict brings, there’s plenty of evidence to show that Lincoln kept abreast of technological developments as best he could. Once a gearhead, always a gearhead.
Before being elected, he actually went on a speaking tour and gave speeches about technology and the coming of the ever more mechanical world.
A fun footnote to history for sure and one we think that lots of BangShifters can appreciate!
Here’s the language from Abe Lincoln’s patent, which was granted on May 22, 1849 –
Specification forming part vof Letters Patent No. 6,469, dated May 22, 1849; application filed March 10, 1849.
to enable them to pass over bars, or through` shallow water, without discharging their car goes; and I do herebydeclare 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 constructer` in such a manner that they can be expanded so as to held 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.
Fig. 1, is a side elevation of a vessel with the buoyant chambers combined therewith, expanded;
Fig. 2, is a transverse section of the same with the buoyant chambers contracted.
Fig. 3, is a longitudinal vertical section through the centre of one of the buoyant chambers, and the box B, for receiving it when contracted, which is secured to the lower guard of the vessel.
The top g, and bottom h, of each buoyant chamber, is composed of plank or metal, of suitable strength and stidness, and thelexible sides and ends of the chambers, are composed of india-rubber cloth, or other suitable water-proof fabric, securely united to the edges `fnd ends of the top and bottom of the charners.
The sides of the chambers may be stayed and supported centrally by a frame k, as shown in Fig. 3, or as many stays may be combined with them as may be necessary to give them the requisite fullness and strength when expanded.
The buoyant chambers are suspended and operated as follows: A suitable number of vertical shafts or spars D, D, lare combined with each of the chambers, as represented in Figs. 2 and 3, to wit: The shafts work freely in apertures formed in the upper sides of the chambers, and their lower ends are permanently secured to the under sides of the chambers: The vertical shafts or spars (D,D,) pass up through the top of the boxes B, B, on the lower guards of the vessel, and then through its upper lguards, or some other suitable support, to keep them in a vertical position.
The vertical shafts (D, D,) are connected to the main shaft C,which passes longitudinally through the centre of the vessel-just below its upper deck-by endless ropes f, j, as represented in Fig. 2: The said ropes, j, f, being wound several times around the main shaft C, then passing outwards over sheaves or rollers attached to the upper deck or guards of the vessel, from which they descend along the inner sides of the vertical shafts or spars D, D, to sheaves or rollers connected to the boxes B, B, and thence rise to the main shaft (C,) again.
The ropes f, f, are connected to the vertical shafts at z’, z’, as shown in Figs. 1 and 2. It will therefore be perceived, that by turning the main shaft C, in one direction, the buoyant chambers will be expanded into the position shown in Fig. l; and by turning the shaft in an opposite direction, the chambers will be contracted into the position shown in Fig. 2.
In Fig. 3, e, e, are check ropes, made fastl to thetops of the boxes B, B, and to the upper sides of the buoyant chambers; which ropes catch and retain the upper sides of the chambers when their lower sides are forced down, and cause the chambers to be expanded to their full capacity. By varying the length of the check ropes, the depth of immersion of the buoyant chambers can be governed. A suitable number of openings m, m, are formed in the upper sides of the buoyant chambers, for the admission and emission of air when the chambers are expanded and contracted.
The ropes f, f, that connect the main shaft C, with the shafts or spars D, D, (rislng from the buoyant chambers, if it should be found expedient.
I shall generally make the mam shaft C, 1n as man parts as there are corresponding pairs o buoyant chambers, so that by coupe ling the sections of the shaft together, the whole of the chambers can be expanded at the same time, and by disconnecting them, either pair of chalnbers can be expanded, separately from the others as circumstances may require.
The buoyant chambers may be operated by the power ofthe steam engine applied to the main shaft C` in any convenient manner, or by man power.
Where the guards of a vessel are very high above the water, the boxes B` B, for the recept-ion of the buoyant chambers when contracted, may be dispensed with, and the chambers be contracted by drawing them against the under side of the guards. Or, protecting cases may be secured to the under sides of the guards for the reception of the buoyant chambers when contracted.
lVhen it is desired to combine my expansible buoyant chambers with vessels which have. no projecting guards; shelves or cases must be strongly secured to their sides for the reception of the buoyant chambers.
I wish it to be distinctly understood, that I do not’intend to limit myself to any articular mechanical arrangement, in com ining expansible buoyant chambers with a vessel, but shall vary the same’ as I may deem expedient, whilst I yattain the same end by substantially the same means.
What I claim as my invention and desire to secure by letters patent, is thelcombination 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 downlthrough 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.
A. LINCOLN. litnessz Z. C. ROBBINS, H. H. SYLvEsTER.