Abraham Lincoln and Technology

Abraham Lincoln and Technology


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Abraham Lincoln had a curious mind – he liked technology and natural mysteries. Judge David Davis recalled that Mr. Lincoln “had a good mechanical mind and Knowledge.”1 Attorney Henry Clay Whitney recalled one night when the two lawyers were on the Eighth Circuit in Illinois and Mr. Lincoln had disappeared after dinner. “Now, Lincoln had a furtive way of stealing in on one, unheard, unperceived, and unawares; and on this occasion, after we had lain for a short time; our door latch was noiselessly raised – the door opened, and the tall form of Abraham Lincoln glided in noiselessly. ‘Why Lincoln, where have you been?’ exclaimed Judge David Davis. ‘I was in hopes you fellers would be asleep,’ replied he: ‘Well, I have been to a little show up at the Academy:’ and he sat before the fire, and narrated all the sights of that most primitive of country shows, given chiefly to school children. Next night, he was missing again; the show was still in town, and he stole in as before, and entertained us with a description of new sights – a magic lantern, electrical machine, etc. I told him I had seen all these sights at school. ‘Yes,’ said he, sadly, ‘I now have an advantage over you in, for the first time in my life, seeing these things which are of course common to those, who had, what I did not, a chance at an education, when they were young.”2
Mr. Lincoln had an abiding interest in how the real world worked. Attorney Joseph Gillespie wrote that Mr. Lincoln “was less given to pure abstraction than most of thoughtful and investigating minds. I should say that he was contemplative rather than speculative. He wanted something solid to rest upon and hence his bias for mathematics and the physical sciences. I think he bestowed more attention to them than upon metaphysical speculations. I have heard him descant upon the problem of whether a ball discharged from a gun in a horizontal position would be longer in reaching the ground than one dropped at the instant of discharge from the muzzle the gun and he said it always appeared to him that they would both reach the ground at the same time even before he had read the philosophical explanation. He was fond of astronomy but I can’t call to mind any reference of his to geology. He doubtless had read and thought of the subject but it did not engage his attention to the degree that astronomy and mechanical science did. He invited me on day at Washington city to call upon him in the evening when he said we would go to the observatory and take a look at the moon through the large teloscope [sic].”3 President Lincoln had a telescope in his office which he used to look at the far side of the Potomac.
Adeline Judd, wife of Illinois State Republican Chairman Norman B. Judd, recalled sitting on the Judds’ Chicago porch looking at the night sky as Mr. Lincoln discoursed on the mysteries of astronomy and “of the discoveries since the invention of the telescope, which had thrown a flood of light and knowledge on what before was incomprehensible and mysterious; of the wonderful computations of scientists who had measured the miles of seemingly endless space which separated the planets in our solar system from our central sun, and our sun from other suns, which were now gemming the heavens above us with their resplendent beauty.”4
Lincoln friend Joshua F. Speed wrote that Mr. Lincoln “was never ashamed so far as I know, to admit his ignorance upon any subject, or of the meaning of any word no matter how ridiculous it might make him appear. As he was riding into town the evening before the speech he passed the handsomest house in the village which had just been built by Geo. Forquer. Upon it he had placed a lightning rod. The first one in the town or county. Some ten or twelve young men were riding with Lincoln. He asked them what that rod was for. They told him it was to keep off the lightning. ‘How does it do it’? He asked. None of them could tell. He rode into town, bought a book on the properties of lightning, and before morning knew all about it. When he was ignorant upon any subject, he addressed himself to the task of being ignorant no longer.”
At a subsequent political meeting, Democrat Forquer spoke before Whig Lincoln and roundly abused him. Speed recalled Mr. Lincoln’s responded: “Mr. Forquer commenced his speech by announcing that the young man would have to be taken down. It is for you, fellow citizens, not for me to say whether I am up or down. The gentleman has seen fit to allude to my being a young man; but he forgets that I am older in years than I am in the tricks and trades of politicians. I desire to live, and I desire place and distinction; but I would rather die now than, like the gentleman, live to see the day that I would change my politics for an office worth three thousand dollars a year, and then feel compelled to erect a lightning rod to protect a guilty conscience from an offended God.” William H. Herndon recalled: “The effect of this rejoinder was wonderful, and gave Forquer and his lightning rod a notoriety the extent of which no one envied him.”5
Lincoln scholar Robert V. Bruce wrote: “During the fifties, the Machine Age began to take hold in Springfield. Steam engines hissed and pounded in its mills, ready-made clothes piled up on its counters, reapers clattered over its tributary farms. As Lincoln walked along a Springfield street one day in 1856, he spied a self-raking reaper on exhibition, the first he had ever seen. Here was technology helping to feed the millions who tended its shops and mills. Fascinated, Lincoln stared long at the new device. His imagination carried it to an Illinois wheat field and set it going; his supple mind followed the complex evolutions of sickle, revolving rake and reels.” Bruce noted that “there was a streak in Abraham Lincoln that reflected young America’s delight in the Machine Age. A streak that had more in it of Eli Whitney than of Henry Thoreau.”6
Springfield court official Thomas W. S. Kidd recalled that he was “explaining the ‘Atkins Self-Raking Reaper,’ when Mr. Lincoln came up. He told me to proceed with the explanation, which I did, and he seemed to take quite a lively interest. At the close of the explanation Mr. Lincoln surprised me not a little by remarking in his peculiar emphatic manner, ‘Young man, I think you are just the one I am looking for,’ and without giving me an opportunity to ask for what purpose he wanted me, he said, ‘If you are through with the doctor and Uncle Peter Cartright, will you walk over to the state-house with me, I want to use you.’ I consented to go, remarking to Dr. Harrison, as I did so: ‘Doctor, I only know Mr. Lincoln as a Whig, but as the Whig party is dead, I suppose he will not be dangerous.’ He laughed and we started, but after going about twenty feet turned and said, ‘Ho, Doc! I hope our reaper friend will have better luck than some in this county who thought the Whig party was dead!'”
Kidd reported: “His use of me I soon learned; he showed me a number of pieces taken from two reaping-machines – the Manny and McCormick – which had been taken to his room for the purpose of studying the various movements, to ascertain wherein one of the machines was an infringement of the patent granted to the other. Mr. Lincoln possessed but little practical knowledge of machinery, but his fondness for the study of mechanics very much interested him, and he could very readily, with but little explanation, comprehend the uses of different parts and their relation to the other parts. It was a pleasurable task for me to explain these two machines; to aid him in ascertaining their movements; in noting the difference or pointing out the mechanical equivalents of the one for the other, or where I thought the same principle was applied in the construction or operation of the various parts to accomplish a specific purpose, or where the mechanism of the one differed from the other, although the end reached was the same.”7
Mr. Lincoln was apparently a good student – although he never got to employ his reaper knowledge as a counsel for the Manny side in the famed reaper patent case in 1855. He was frozen out by the lead counsel, who included future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, future Assistant Secretary of War Petter H. Watson and renowned Philadelphia patent attorney George Harding. The latter hired Mr. Lincoln to be the local lawyer on the case at a time when Harding thought it would be tried in Illinois rather than Ohio, when it was eventually tried. Mr. Lincoln “went out to Rockford, and spent half a day, examining and studying Manny’s Machine.”8 Mr. Lincoln told friend Joseph Gillespie that “he prepared himself as he thought thoroughly and flattered himself that he knew something of mechanics but said when I came to compare notes with my young associate I found that I knew nothing.”9 Springfield attorney Charles S. Zane watched Mr. Lincoln as he examined a “self-raking reaping machine.” Zane wrote: “It was then a new invention, and quite intricate in its construction. I had caught up with him and stopped to listen. It was the first selfraker that he had seen. He examined it with much interest, and then I listened to him explaining, in the fewest words but with great clearness, how power and motion were communicated to the different appliances, especially to the sickle, the revolving rake, and the reel.”

His faculty for comprehending and understanding machinery I afterward saw exemplified when I heard him argue a patent case in the United States Circuit Court at Springfield. A number of models representing different machines had been introduced in evidence and they were upon the floor before the jury. During his argument, to get a better view of the different parts of the invention, he knelt down, and several of the jurors for the same purpose came to where he was and also got upon their knees. I had taken a vacant chair near Jackson Grimshaw, and the sight drew from him one of those remarks which were never wanting when he was in a courtroom. I heard Grimshaw say to Archibald Williams, his colleague, in a low tone, ‘I guess our case has gone to h–l; Lincoln and the jurors are on their knees together.”10

Historian Robert V. Bruce noted that during this period “Lincoln stopped to watch a young telegrapher, Charles Tinker, at his work. The onlooker asked questions, and young Tinker explained the workings of the wonderful contraption: the key, the making and breaking of the circuit, the electromagnet. Tinker found Lincoln an apt and intelligent pupil,’already well furnished with knowledge of collateral facts and natural phenomena.”11 Some of this material, noted Bruce, Mr. Lincoln had learned from perusing the Annual of Scientific Discovery. Mr. Lincoln law partner William H. Herndon recalled that Mr. Lincoln told him: “I have wanted such a book for years because I sometimes make experiments and have thought about the physical world that I do not know to be true or false. I may, by this book, correct my errors and save time and expense.”12
Herndon thought his law partner’s thought processes were peculiar. Herndon noted: “Not only were nature, man, and principle suggestive to Mr. Lincoln, not only had he accurate and exact perceptions, but he was causative; his mind, apparently with an automatic movement, ran back behinds facts, principles, and all things to their origin and first cause — to that where forces act at once as effect and cause. He would stop in the street and analyze a machine. He would whittle a thing to a point, and then count the numberless inclined planes and their pitch making the point. Mastering and defining this, he would then cut that point back and get a broad transverse section of his pine-stick and peel and define that. Clocks, omnibuses, language, paddle-wheels, and idioms never escaped his observation and analysis. Before he could form an idea of anything, before he would express his opinion on a subject, he must know its origin and history in substance and quality, in magnitude and gravity. He must know it inside and outside, upside and downside. He searched and comprehended his own mind and nature thoroughly, as I have often heard him say. He must analyze a sensation, an idea, and runback in its history to its origin, and purpose. He was remorseless in his analysis of facts and principles. When all these exhaustive processes had been gone through with he could form an idea and express it; but no sooner. He had no faith, and no respect for ‘say so’s,’ come though they might from tradition or authority. Thus everything had to run through the crucible, and be tested by the fires of his analytic mind; and when at last he did speak, his utterances rang out with the clear and keen ring of gold upon the counters of the understanding. He reasoned logically through analogy and comparison. All opponents dreaded his originality of idea, his condensation, definition, and force of expression; and woe be to the man who hugged to his bosom a secret error if Lincoln got on the chase of it. I repeat, woe to him! Time could hide the error in no nook or corner of space in which he would not detect and expose it.”13
Mr. Lincoln was more than an observer of new technology. Herndon wrote: “After seeing Niagara Falls in 1848 Mr. Lincoln continued his journey homeward. At some point on the way, the vessel on which he had taken passage stranded on a sand bar. The captain ordered the hands to collect all the loose planks, empty barrels and boxes and force them under the sides of the boat. These empty casks were used to buoy it up. After forcing enough of them under the vessel she lifted gradually and at last swung clear of the opposing sand bar. Lincoln had watched this operation very intently. It no doubt carried him back to the days of his navigation on the turbulent Sangamon, when he and John Hanks had rendered similar service at New Salem dam to their employer the volatile Dennis Offut. Continual thinking on the subject of lifting vessels over sand bars and other obstructions in the water suggested to him the idea of inventing an apparatus for the purpose. Using the principle involved in the operation he had just witnessed his plan was to attach a kind of bellows on each side of the hull of the craft just below the water line, and by an odd system of ropes and pulleys, whenever the keel grated on the sand these bellows were to be filled with air, and thus buoyed up, the vessel was expected to float clear of the shoal. On reaching home he at once set to work to demonstrate the feasibility of his plan. Walter Davis, a mechanic having a shop near our office, granted him the use of his tools, and likewise assisted him in making the model of a miniature vessel with the arrangement as above described. Lincoln manifested ardent interest in it. Occasionally he would bring the model in the office, and while whittling on it would descant on its merits and the revolution it was destined to work in steamboat navigation. Although I regarded the thing as impracticable I said nothing, probably out of respect for Lincoln’s well-known reputation as a boatman. The model was sent or taken by him to Washington, where a patent was issued, but the invention was never applied to any vessel, so far as I ever learned, and the threatened revolution in steamboat architecture, and navigation never came to pass.”14
Mr. Lincoln was the only American President ever to be issued a patent. Mr. Lincoln had applied for a patent on a “new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant chambers with steam boats or other vessels”. On May 22, 1849 Mr. Lincoln’s patent 6469 was granted. As a lawyer, Mr. Lincoln became involved in a number of patent cases whose mechanical details appealed to his mechanical curiosity. Mr. Lincoln handled one case that concerned a self-rocking cradle. Asked how it would stop, Mr. Lincoln said: “There’s the rub, and I reckon I’ll have to answer you as I did the judge who asked the same question. The thing’s like some of the glib and interesting talkers you and I know, John; when it gets to going it doesn’t know when to stop.” 15
Mr. Lincoln’s fascination with technology was turned into two lectures – neither of which were successful, but both of which reflected his fascination with the long history of scientific progress. As attorney Henry C. Whitney remembered, Mr. Lincoln “made a sorry failure in his attempt to invade the lecture field, by his lecture on ‘Man,’ after he had become developed as a great man. He first broached his design to write this lecture under the following circumstances: I think it was in the fall of 1855. It chanced that Leonard Swett and his wife, who sometimes accompanied him on the circuit, LIncoln and myself traveled from Urbana to Danville in a two-seated vehicle, with a driver. Swett had a volume of George Bancroft’s Miscellanies, and soon after we started we took up the lecture of the Progress of Man before the New York Historical Society on Nov. 20, 1854, and read aloud by turns, stopping frequently to comment upon the text at appropriate places. During this time Lincoln informed us that he had for some time been contemplating the writing of a lecture on man; he said he proposed to review man from his earliest primeval state to his present high development, and he detailed at length the views and opinions he designed to incorporate in his lecture.”16The First “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions” was delivered in the spring of 1858 – first at Bloomington on April 6 before the Young Men’s Association. As written, Mr. Lincoln said:
All creation is a mine, and every man, a miner.
The whole earth, and all within it, upon it, and round about it, including himself, in his physical, moral, and intellectual nature, and his susceptabilities, are the infinitely various “leads” from which, man, from the first, was to dig out his destiny.

In the beginning, the mine was unopened, and the miner stood naked, and knowledgeless, upon it.
Fishes, birds, beasts, and creeping things, are not miners, but feeders and lodgers, merely. Beavers build houses; but they build them in nowise differently, or better now, than they did, five thousand years ago. Ants, and honey-bees, provide food for winter; but just in the same way they did, when Solomon referred the sluggard to them as patterns of prudence.
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. His first important discovery was the fact that he was naked; and his first invention was the fig-leaf-apron. This simple article – the apron – made of leaves, seems to have been the origin of clothing – the one thing for which nearly half of the toil and care of the human race has ever since been expended. The most important improvement ever made in connection with clothing, was the invention of spinning and weaving. The spinning jenny, and power-loom, invented in modern times, though great improvements, do not, as inventions, rank with the ancient arts of spinning and weaving. Spinning and weaving brought into the department of clothing such abundance and variety of material. Wool, the hair of several species of animals, hemp, flax, cotton, silk, and perhaps other articles, were all suited to it, affording garments not only adapted to wet and dry, heat and cold, but also susceptible of high degrees of ornamental finish. Exactly when, or where, spinning and weaving originated is not known. At the first interview of the Almighty with Adam and Eve, after the fall, He made “coats of skins, and clothed them” Gen: 3-21.
The Bible makes no other allusion [sic] to clothing, before the flood. Soon after the deluge Noah’s two sons covered him with a garment; but of what material the garment was made is not mentioned. Gen. 9-23.
Abraham mentions “thread”‘ in such connection as to indicate that spinning and weaving were in use in his day – Gen. 14.23 – and soon after, reference to the art is frequently made. “Linen breeches,” are mentioned, – Exod. 28.42 – and it is said “all the women that were wise hearted, did spin with their hands” (35-25) and, “all the women whose hearts stirred them up in wisdom, spun goat’s hair” (35-26). The work of the “weaver” is mentioned – (35-35). In the book of Job, a very old book, date not exactly known, the “weavers shuttle” is mentioned.
The above mention of “thread” by Abraham is the oldest recorded allusion to spinning and weaving; and it was made about two thousand years after the creation of man, and now, near four thousand years ago. Profane authors think these arts originated in Egypt; and this is not contradicted, or made improbable, by any thing in the Bible; for the allusion of Abraham, mentioned, was not made until after he had sojourned in Egypt.
The discovery of the properties of iron, and the making of iron tools, must have been among the earliest of important discoveries and inventions. We can scarcely conceive the possibility of making much of anything else, without the use of iron tools. Indeed, an iron hammer must have been very much needed to make the first iron hammer with. A stone probably served as a substitute. How could the “gopher wood” for the Ark, have been gotten out without an axe? It seems to me an axe, or a miracle, was indispensable. Corresponding with the prime necessity for iron, we find at least one very early notice of it. Tubal-cain was “an instructer of every artificer in brass and iron” Gen: 4-22. Tubal-cain was the seventh in decent [sic] from Adam; and his birth was about one thousand years before the flood. After the flood, frequent mention is made of iron, and instruments made of iron. Thus “instrument of iron” at Num: 35-16; “bed-stead of iron” at Deut. 3-11– “the iron furnace’ at 4-20 – and “iron tool” at 27-5. At 19-5 – very distinct mention of “the ax to cut down the tree” is made; and also at 8-9, the promised land is described as “a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass.” From the somewhat frequent mention of brass in connection with iron, it is not improbable that brass – perhaps what we now call copper – was used by the ancients for some of the same purposes as iron.
Transportation – the removal of person, and goods – from place to place –would be an early object, if not a necessity, with man. By his natural powers of locomotion, and without much assistance from Discovery and invention, he could move himself about with considerable facility; and even, could carry small burthens with him. But very soon he would wish to lessen the labor, while he might, at the same time, extend, and expedite the business. For this object, wheel-carriages, and water-crafts – wagons and boats – are the most important inventions. The use of the wheel & axle, has been so long known, that it is difficult, without reflection, to estimate it at it’s true value.
The oldest recorded allusion to the wheel and axle is the mention of a “chariot” Gen: 41-43. This was in Egypt, upon the occasion of Joseph being made Governor by Pharaoh. It was about twentyfive hundred years after the creation of Adam. That the chariot then mentioned was a wheel-carriage drawn by animals, is sufficiently evidenced by the mention of chariot-wheels, at Exod. 14-25, and the mention of chariots in connection with horses, in the same chapter, verses 9 & 23. So much, at present, for land-transportation.
Now, as to transportation by water, I have concluded, without sufficient authority perhaps, to use the term “boat” as a general name for all water-craft. The boat is indispensable to navigation. It is not probable that the philosophical principle upon which the use of the boat primarily depends – towit, the principle, that any thing will float, which can not sink without displacing more than it’s own weight of water – was known, or even thought of, before the first boats were made. The sight of a crow standing on a piece of drift-wood floating down the swolen [sic] current of a creek or river, might well enough suggest the specific idea to a savage, that he could himself get upon a log, or on two logs tied together, and somehow work his way to the opposite shore of the same stream. Such a suggestion, so taken, would be the birth of navigation; and such, not improbably, it really was. The leading idea was thus caught; and whatever came afterwards, were but improvements upon, and auxiliaries to, it.
As man is a land animal, it might be expected he would learn to travel by land somewhat earlier than he would by water. Still the crossing of streams, somewhat too deep for wading, would be an early necessity with him. If we pass by the Ark, which may be regarded as belonging rather to the miracalous [sic], than to human invention the first notice we have of water-craft, is the mention of “ships” by Jacob — Gen: 49-13. It is not till we reach the book of Isaiah that we meet with the mention of “oars” and “sails.”
As mans food – his first necessity – was to be derived from the vegitation [sic] of the earth, it was natural that his first care should be directed to the assistance of that vegitation. And accordingly we find that, even before the fall, the man was put into the garden of Eden “to dress it, and to keep it.” And when afterwards, in consequence of the first transgression, labor was imposed on the race, as a penalty – a curse – we find the first born man – the first heir of the curse – was “a tiller of the ground.” This was the beginning of agriculture; and although, both in point of time, and of importance, it stands at the head of all branches of human industry, it has derived less direct advantage from Discovery and Invention, than almost any other. The plow, of very early origin; and reaping, and threshing, machines, of modern invention are, at this day, the principle improvements in agriculture. And even the oldest of these, the plow, could not have been conceived of, until a precedent conception had been caught, and put into practice – I mean the conception, or idea, of substituting other forces in nature, for man’s own muscular power. These other forces, as now used, are principally, the strength of animals, and the power of the wind, of running streams, and of steam.
Climbing upon the back of an animal, and making it carry us, might not, occur very readily. I think the back of the camel would never have suggested it. It was, however, a matter of vast importance.
The earliest instance of it mentioned, is when “Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass,” Gen. 22-3 preparatory to sacrificing Isaac as a burnt-offering; but the allusion to the saddle indicates that riding had been in use some time; for it is quite probable they rode bare-backed awhile, at least, before they invented saddles.
The idea, being once conceived, of riding one species of animals, would soon be extended to others. Accordingly we find that when the servant of Abraham went in search of a wife for Isaac, he took ten camels with him; and, on his return trip, “Rebekah arose, and her damsels, and they rode upon the camels, and followed the man” Gen 24-61.
The horse, too, as a riding animal, is mentioned early. The Red sea being safely passed, Moses and the children of Israel sang to the Lord “the horse, and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” Exo. 15-1.
Seeing that animals could bear man upon their backs, it would soon occur that they could also bear other burthens. Accordingly we find that Joseph’s brethren, on their first visit to Egypt, “laded their asses with the corn, and departed thence: Gen. 42-26.
Also it would occur that animals could be made to draw burthens after them, as well as to bear them upon their backs; and hence plows and chariots came into use early enough to be often mentioned in the books of Moses – Deut. 22-10. Gen. 41-43. Gen. 46-29. Exo. 14-25[.]
Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power – that is, power to move things. Take any given space of the earth’s surface – for instance, Illinois – and all the power exerted by all the men, and beasts, and running-water, and steam, over and upon it, shall not equal the one hundredth part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over and upon the same space. And yet it has not, so far in the world’s history, become proportionally valuable as a motive power. It is applied extensively, and advantageously, to sail-vessels in navigation. Add to this a few wind-mills, and pumps, and you have about all. That, as yet, no very successful mode of controlling, and directing the wind, has been discovered; and that, naturally, it moves by fits and starts – now so gently as to scarcely stir a leaf, and now so roughly as to level a forest – doubtless have been the insurmountable difficulties. As yet, the wind is an untamed and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of the wind. That the difficulties of controlling this power are very great is quite evident by the fact that they have already been perceived, and struggled with more than three thousand years; for that power was applied to sail-vessels, at least as early as the time of the prophet Isaiah.
In speaking of running streams, as a motive power, I mean it’s application to mills and other machinery by means of the “water wheel” – a thing now well known, and extensively used; but, of which, no mention is made in the bible, though it is thought to have been in use among the Romans – (Am. Ency. tit – Mill).The language of the Saviour “Two women shall be grinding at the mill &c” indicates that, even in the populous city of Jerusalem, at that day, mills were operated by hand – having, as yet had no other than human power applied to them.
The advantageous use of Steam-power is, unquestionably, a modern discovery.
And yet, as much as two thousand years ago the power of steam was not only observed, but an ingenius toy was actually made and put in motion by it, at Alexandria in Egypt.
What appears strange is, that neither the inventor of the toy, nor any one else, for so long a time afterwards, should perceive that steam would move useful machinery as well as a toy.17
After the 1858 Senate campaign ended, according to William H. Herndon, Mr. Lincoln “began preparations in the usual way by noting down ideas on stray pieces of paper, which found a lodgment inside his hat, and finally brought forth in connected form a lecture on ‘Inventions.’ In it, “he recounted the wonderful improvements in machinery, the arts, and sciences. Now and then he indulged in a humorous paragraph, and witticisms were freely sprinkled throughout the lecture. During the the winter he delivered it at several towns in the central part of the State, but it was so commonplace, and met with such indifferent success, that he soon dropped it altogether. The effort met with the disapproval of his friends, and he himself was filled with disgust.”18

In this Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions, which he delivered on at least three occasions in February 1859, Mr. Lincoln used fewer biblical references but concentrated on communication. He said:

“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. For instance, it is quite certain that ever since water has been boiled in covered vessels, men have seen the lids of the vessels rise and fall a little, with a sort of fluttering motion, by force of the steam; but so long as this was not specially observed, and reflected and experimented upon, it came to nothing. At length however, after many thousand years, some man observes this long-known effect of hot water lifting a pot-lid, and begins a train of reflection upon it. He says ‘Why, to be sure, the force that lifts the pot-lid, will lift any thing else, which is no heavier than the pot-lid.’ ‘And, as man has much hard lifting to do, can not this hot-water power be made to help him?’ He has become a little excited on the subject, and he fancies he hears a voice answering ‘Try me.’ He does try it, and the observation, reflection, and trial gives to the world the control of that tremendous, and now well known agent, called steam-power. This is not actual history in detail, but the general principle.
But was this first inventor of the application of steam, wiser or more ingenious than those who had gone before him? Not at all. Had he not learned much of them, he never would have succeeded – probably, never would have thought of making the attempt. To be fruitful in invention, it is indispensable to have a habit of observation and reflection; and this habit, our steam friend acquired, no doubt, from those who, to him, were old fogies. But for the difference in habit of observation, why did yankees, almost instantly, discover gold in California, which had been trodden upon, and over-looked by indians and Mexican greasers, for centuries? Gold-mines are not the only mines overlooked in the same way. There are more mines above the Earth’s surface than below it. All nature – the whole world, material, moral, and intellectual, – is a mine; and, in Adam’s day, it was a wholly unexplored mine. Now, it was the destined work of Adam’s race to develop, by discoveries, inventions and improvements, the hidden treasures of this mine. But Adam had nothing to turn his attention to the work. If he should do anything in the way of invention, he had first to invent the art of invention – the instance at least, if not the habit of observation and reflection. As might be expected he seems not to have been a very observing man at first; for it appears he went about naked a considerable length of time, before he even noticed that obvious fact. But when he did observe it, the observation was not lost upon him; for it immediately led to the first of all inventions, of which we have any direct account– the fig-leaf apron.
The inclination to exchange thoughts with one another is probably an original impulse of our nature. If I be in pain I wish to let you know it, and to ask your sympathy and assistance; and my pleasurable emotions also, I wish to communicate to, and share with you. But to carry on such cation, some instrumentality is indispensable.
Accordingly, speech – articular sounds rattled off from the tongue – was used by our first parents, and even by Adam, before the creation of Eve. He gave names to the animals while she was still a bone in his side; and he broke out quite volubly when she first stood before him, the best present of his maker. From this it would appear that speech was not an invention of man, but rather the direct gift of his Creator. But whether Divine gift, or invention, it is still plain that if a mode of communication had been left to invention, speech must have been the first, from the superior adaptation to the end, of the organs of speech, over every other means within the whole range of nature. Of the organs of speech the tongue is the principal; and if we shall test it, we shall find the capacities of the tongue, in the utterance of articulate sounds, absolutely wonderful. You can count from one to one hundred, quite distinctly in about forty seconds. In doing this two hundred and eighty three distinct sounds or syllables are uttered, being seven to each second; and yet there shall be enough difference between every two, to be easily recognized by the ear of the hearer. What other signs to represent things could possibly be produced so rapidly? or, even, if ready made, could be arranged so rapidly to express the sense? Motions with the hands, are no adequate substitute. Marks for the recognition of the eye – writing – although a wonderful auxiliary for speech, is no worthy substitute for it. In addition to the more slow and laborious process of getting up a communication in writing, the materials – pen, ink, and paper – are not always at hand. But one always has his tongue with him, and the breath of his life is the ever-ready material with which it works. Speech, then, by enabling different individuals to interchange thoughts, and thereby to combine their powers of observation and reflection, greatly facilitates useful discoveries and inventions. What one observes, and would himself infer nothing from, he tells to another, and that other at once sees a valuable hint in it. A result is thus reached which neither alone would have arrived at.
And this reminds me of what I passed unnoticed before, that the very first invention was a joint operation, Eve having shared with Adam in the getting up of the apron. And, indeed, judging from the fact that sewing has come down to our times as ‘woman’s work’ it is very probable she took the leading part; he, perhaps, doing no more than to stand by and thread the needle. That proceeding may be reckoned as the mother of all ‘Sewing societies” and the first and most perfect ‘world’s fair’ all inventions and all inventors then in the world, being on the spot.
But speech alone, valuable as it ever has been, and is, has not advanced the condition of the world much. This is abundantly evident when we look at the degraded condition of all those tribes of human creatures who have no considerable additional means of communicating thoughts.
Writing – the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye – is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it, great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions. Suppose the art, with all conception of it, were this day lost to the world, how long, think you, would it be, before even Young America could get up the letter A. with any adequate notion of using it to advantage? The precise period at which writing was invented, is not known; but it certainly was as early as the time of Moses; from which we may safely infer that it’s inventors were very old fogies.
Webster, at the time of writing his Dictionary, speaks of the English Language as then consisting of seventy or eighty thousand words. If so, the language in which the five books of Moses were written must, at that time, now thirty three or four hundred years ago, have consisted of at least one quarter as many, or, twenty thousand. When we remember that words are sounds merely, we shall conclude that the idea of representing those sounds by marks, so that whoever should at any time after see the marks, would understand what sounds they meant, was a bold and ingenious conception, not likely to occur to one man of a million, in the run of a thousand years. And, when it did occur, a distinct mark for each word, giving twenty thousand different marks first to be learned, and afterwards remembered, would follow as the second thought, and would present such a difficulty as would lead to the conclusion that the whole thing was impracticable. But the necessity still would exist; and we may readily suppose that the idea was conceived, and lost, and reproduced, and dropped, and taken up again and again, until at last, the thought of dividing sounds into parts, and making a mark, not to represent a whole sound, but only a part of one, and then of combining these marks, not very many in number, upon the principles of permutation, so as to represent any and all of the whole twenty thousand words, and even any additional number was somehow conceived and pushed into practice. This was the invention of phonetic writing, as distinguished from the clumsy picture writing of some of the nations. That it was difficult of conception and execution, is apparent [sic], as well by the foregoing reflections, as by the fact that so many tribes of men have come down from Adam’s time to ours without ever having possessed it. Its utility may be conceived, by the reflection that, to it we owe everything which distinguishes us from savages. Take it from us, and the Bible, all history, all science, all government, all commerce, and nearly all social intercourse go with it.
The great activity of the tongue, in articulating sounds, has already been mentioned; and it may be of some passing interest to notice the wonderful powers of the eye, in conveying idea to the mind from writing. Take the same example of the numbers from one to one hundred, written down, and you can run your eye over the list, and be assured that every number is in it, in about one half the time it would require to pronounce the words with the voice; and not only so, but you can, in the same short time, determine whether every word is spelled correctly, by which it is evident that every separate letter, amounting to eight hundred and sixty four, has been recognized, and reported to the mind, within the incredibly short space of twenty seconds, or one third of a minute.
I have already intimated my opinion that in the world’s history, certain inventions and discoveries occurred, of peculiar value, on account of their great efficiency in facilitating all other inventions and discoveries. Of these were the arts of writing and of printing – the discovery of America, and the introduction of Patent-laws. The date of the first, as already stated, is unknown; but it certainly was as much as fifteen hundred years before the Christian era; the second – printing – came in 1436, or nearly three thousand years after the first. The others followed more rapidly – the discovery of America in 1492, and the first patent laws in 1624. Though not apposite to my present purpose, it is but justice to the fruitfulness of that period, to mention two other important events – the Lutheran Reformation in 1517, and, still earlier, the invention of negroes, or, of the present mode of using them, in 1434. But, to return to the consideration of printing, it is plain that it is but the other half – and in real utility, the better half – of writing; and that both together are but the assistants of speech in the communication of thoughts between man and man. When man was possessed of speech alone, the chances of invention, discovery, and improvement, were very limited; but by the introduction of each of these, they were greatly multiplied. When writing was invented, any important observation, likely to lead to a discovery, had at least a chance of being written down, and consequently, a better chance of never being forgotten; and of being seen, and reflected upon, by a much greater number of persons; and thereby the chances of a valuable hint being caught, proportionately augmented. By this means the observation of a single individual might lead to an important invention, years, and even centuries after he was dead. In one word, by means of writing, the seeds of invention were more permanently preserved, and more widely sown. And yet, for the three thousand years during which printing remained undiscovered after writing was in use, it was only a small portion of the people who could write, or read writing; and consequently the field of invention, though much extended, still continued very limited. At length printing came. It gave ten thousand copies of any written matter, quite as cheaply as ten were given before; and consequently a thousand minds were brought into the field where there was but one before. This was a great gain; and history shows a great change corresponding to it, in point of time. I will venture to consider it, the true termination of that period called ‘the dark ages.’ Discoveries, inventions and improvements followed rapidly, and have been increasing their rapidity ever since. The effects could not come, all at once. It required time to bring them out; and they are still coming. The capacity to read, could not be multiplied as fast as the means of reading. Spelling-books just began to go into the hands of the children; but the teachers were not very numerous, or very competent; so that it is safe to infer they did not advance so speedily as they do now-a-days. It is very probable – almost certain – that the great mass of men, at that time, were utterly unconscious that their conditions, or their minds were capable of improvement. They not only looked upon the educated few as superior beings; but they supposed themselves to be naturally incapable of rising to equality. To emancipate the mind from this false and under estimate of itself, is the great task which printing came into the world to perform. It is difficult for us, now and here, to conceive how strong this slavery of the mind was; and how long it did, of necessity, take, to break it’s shackles, and to get a habit of freedom of thought, established. It is, in this connection, a curious fact that a new country is most favorable – almost necessary – to the emancipation [sic] of thought, and the consequent advance of civilization and the arts. The human family originated as is thought, somewhere in Asia, and have worked their way principally Westward. Just now, in civilization, and the arts, the people of Asia are entirely behind those of Europe; those of the East of Europe behind those of the West of it; while we, here in America, think we discover, and invent, and improve, faster than any of them. They may think this is arrogance; but they can not deny that Russia has called on us to show her how to build steam-boats and railroads – while in the older parts of Asia, they scarcely know that such things as S.Bs & RR.s exist. 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 favoring and facilitating useful discoveries and inventions.
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 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. 19

There was a political cast to Mr. Lincoln’s lecture, according to Loyola College academic Diana Schaub. “Lincoln’s lecture appears to be a celebration of human achievement and inventiveness, particularly American achievement and inventiveness. Yet, in the central section of the speech, where Lincoln sketches a portrait of “Young America,” the praise rings increasingly hollow and, indeed, pretty quickly reveals itself as mockery. Lincoln satirizes Young America’s hubris and hypocrisy, its greed for land and its habit of self-congratulation.” She noted: “The five modern events mentioned by Lincoln culminate in the American Civil War, which the nation was just on the cusp of as Lincoln delivered this speech in February of 1959. The two seminal inventions of modernity presaged the conflict: the invention of printing in 1436 pointed man towards freedom; the invention of Negroes in 1434 pointed him towards slavery. The discovery of America in 1492 provided the ground on which both forces eventually converged. The Reformation in 1517 added religious support for the cause of liberty. Patent law in 1624, like the discovery of America, is double-edged, capable of working mischief as well as marvels.”20
Mr. Lincoln was himself had been called upon to defend progress in 1857. On May 6, 1856, the Effie Afton struck one of the piers of a bridge across the Mississippi River from Rock Island, Illinois to Davenport, Iowa. The bridge had opened only the month before the accident. The steamboat burned – as did part of the bridge span. There was suspicion from railroad interests that the bridge had been deliberately rammed by the Effie Afton, On the recommendation of his friend Norman B. Judd, Mr. LIncoln was hired by the Rock Island Railroad Company as the lead counsel to defend it in the case of Hurd v. Rock Island Railroad Company. It was a case in which the future of transportation innovation was at stake – pitting older riverboat technology against new railroad bridge technology. Also at stake was whether the Rock Island Bridge impeded river navigation. The case was tried before Supreme Court Justice John McLean in September 1857. Historian Brian Dirck wrote that Mr. Lincoln “was a riverman himself. He had unloaded cargo, push-poled flatboats, and piloted steamships in his early days, and he had pressed for river improvements as a state legislator. But he had also seen the town of New Salem die because of the Sangamon River’s capricious navigation, and he knew railroads were the wave of the future.”21
Mr. Lincoln used a model of the Effie Afton to explain to the jury what he contended was the problem with the steamboat: “Her engineers say that the starboard wheel was then rushing around rapidly. Then the boat must have struck the upper point of the pier so far back s not to disturb the wheel. It is forty feet from the stern of the Afton to the splash door, and thus it appears that she had but forty feet to go to clear the pier. How was it that the Afton, with all her power, flanked over from the channel to the short pier without moving one foot ahead? Suppose she was in the middle of the draw, her wheel would have ben thirty-one feet from the short pier. The reason she went over thus is her starboard wheel was not working. I shall try to establish the fact that the wheel was not running and that after she struck she went ahead strong on this same wheel. Upon the last point the witnesses agree that the starboard wheel was running after she struck, and no witnesses say that it was running while she was out in the draw flanking over.”22
Mr. Lincoln then continued his technical discussion of the handling of the steamboat: “The fact is undisputed that she did not move one inch ahead while she was moving this thirty-one feet sideways. There is evidence proving that the current there is only five miles an hour, and the only explanation is that her power was not all used — that only one wheel was working. The pilot says he ordered the engineers to back her up. The engineers differ from him and said they kept one going ahead. The bow was so swung that the current pressed it over; the pilot pressed the stern over with the rudder, though not so fast but that the bow gained on it and only one wheel being in motion the boat nearly stood still so far as motion up and down is concerned, and thus she was thrown upon the pier.”23 Historian Dirck noted that lawyer Lincoln’s “case rested on a central, key point: the Effie Afton’s crew was to blame for the accident, not the Rock Island Bridge Company – and surely not railroads in general.”24
Mr. Lincoln told the jury: “The plaintiffs have to establish that the bridge is a material obstruction and that they have managed their boat with reasonable care and skill.” In his summation, Mr. Lincoln attacked the handling of the riverboat by its captain: “If we are allowed by the Legislature to build a bridge, which will require them to do more than before, when a pilot comes along, it is unreasonable for him to dash on, heedless of the structure, which has been legally put there.” 25 The jury stalemated, but nine of the twelve jurors sided with Mr. Lincoln and the Rock Island Railroad Company. But without a decision for the plaintiff, railroad bridge construction was eventually ratified by a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Lincoln had effectively advanced the cause of railroad construction.
Technology was one of the few topics – besides slavery – on which Mr. Lincoln spoke during the 1850s. Mr. Lincoln’s familiarity with agricultural technology was reflected in his futuristic speech to the Wisconsin Agricultural Fair in October 1859. Mr. Lincoln said: “The successful application of steam power, to farm work is a desideratum – especially a Steam Plow. It is not enough, that a machine operated by steam, will really plow. To be successful, it must, all things considered, plow better than can be done with animal power. It must do all the work as well, and cheaper; or more rapidly, so as to get through more perfectly in season; or in some way afford an advantage over plowing with animals, else it is no success. I have never seen a machine intended for a Steam Plow. Much praise, and admiration, are bestowed upon some of them; and they may be, for aught I know, already successful; but I have not perceived the demonstration of it. I have thought a good deal, in an abstract way, about a Steam Plow. That one which shall be so contrived as to apply the larger proportion of its power to the cutting and turning the soil, and the smallest, to the moving itself over the field, will be the best one. A very small stationary engine would draw a large gang of plows through the ground from a short distance to itself; but when it is not stationary, but has to move along like a horse, dragging the plows after it, it must have additional power to carry itself; and the difficulty grows by what is intended to overcome it; for what adds power also adds size, and weight to the machine, thus increasing again, the demand for power. Suppose you should construct the machine so as to cut a succession of short furrows, say a rod in length, transversely to the course the machine is locomoting, something like the shuttle in weaving. In such case the whole machine would move North only the width of a furrow, while length, the furrow would be a rod from East to West. In such case, a very large proportion of the power, would be applied to the actual plowing. But in this, too, there would be a difficulty, which would be the getting of the plower into, and out of, the ground, at the ends of all these short furrows.

I believe, however, ingenious men will, if they have not already, overcome the difficulty I have suggested. But there is still another, about which I am less sanguine. It is the supply of fuel, and especially of water, to make steam. Such supply is clearly practicable, but can the expense of it be borne? Steamboats live upon the water, and find their fuel at stated placed. Steam mills, and other stationary steam machinery, have their stationary supplies of fuel and water. Railroad locomotives have their regular wood and water station. But the steam plow is less fortunate. It does not live upon the water, and when it gets away can not return, without leaving its work, at a great expense of its time and strength. It will occur that a wagon and horse team might be employed to supply it with fuel and water; but this, too, is expensive; and the question recurs, ‘can the expense be borne?’ When this is added to all other expenses, will not the plowing cost more than in the old way?
It is to be hoped that the steam plowe will be finally successful, and if it shall be, “thorough cultivation’ – putting the soil to the top of its capacity – producing the largest crop possible from a given quantity of ground – will be most favorable to it. Doing a large amount of work upon a small quantity of ground, it will be, as nearly as possible, stationary while working, and as free as possible from locomotion; thus expending its strength as much as possible upon its work, and as little as possible in traveling. Our thanks, and something more substantial than thanks, are due to every man engaged in the effort to produce a successful steam plow. Even the unsuccessful will bring something to light, which, in the hands of others, will contribute to the final success. I have not pointed out difficulties, in order that being seen, they may be the more readily overcome.26

Mr. Lincoln’s interest in technology carried over to the presidency. Lincoln scholar Robert V. Bruce wrote: “When Lincoln came to the White House, he felt himself competent to tackle problems of technology. If he had ever believed himself infallible in such things, his lecturing experience had taught him proper humility; but he had also learned as a surveyor and patent lawyer that he could study those matters out and see through them, if need be.”27 As President during the Civil War, Mr. Lincoln often reviewed inventions of others designed to help in the military effort. Mr. Lincoln had never liked hunting but he had become proficient with a rifle as a teenager and occasionally participated in marksmanship contests when visiting soldiers during the Civil War.
Mr. Lincoln’s understanding of rifles was particularly important at the beginning of the war when the administration of the War Department’s ordnance unit looked unfavorably on new inventions. President Lincoln appreciated military offices who shared his interest in technology; he was particularly close to Navy Captain John A. Dahlgren, whom he was instrumental in promoting to admiral. Mr. Lincoln also befriended General Herman Haupt, who oversaw Union railroad operations. On occasion, Mr. Lincoln, accompanied by an aide, tested weapons in an open area south of the White House.
But the result of his interest and position was that President Lincoln was confronted by many crackpot inventors. Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard recalled: “One universal idea seemed to be that if any given gun, cannon, ship, armor or all-killing or all-saving apparatus chanced to take the eye of the President, it must thereupon speedily be adopted for army use and forced into a grand success by Executive authority. It was in vain that Mr. Lincoln systematically discouraged this notion, and never went further, even with inventions that pleased him most, than to order an examination and trial by the proper professional authorities. Every inventor posted straight to the White House with his ‘working model.’ Mr. Lincoln had very good mechanical ability and a quick appreciation of what was practical in any proposed improvement. Here, as elsewhere, his strong common sense came in play, to the great discomfiture of many a shallow quack and mechanical enthusiast. It was a common thing for the makers of the new rifles, shells, armor-vests, gunboats, breech-loading cannon, and the multitudinous nameless contrivances which came into being in the heat and excitement of the times by a species of spontaneous generation, either to invite him to witness a trial or to send him a specimen – the latter being frequently intended as a ‘presentation copy.”28
Another Lincoln aide, John Hay, wrote: “The inventors were more a source of amusement than of annoyance. They were usually men of some originality of character, not infrequently carried to eccentricity. Lincoln had a quick comprehension of mechanical principles, and often detected a flaw in an invention which the contriver had overlooked. He would sometimes go out into the waste fields that then lay south of the Executive Mansion to test an experimental gun or torpedo. He used to quote with much merriment the solemn dictum of one rural inventor that ‘a gun ought not to rekyle; if it rekyled at all, it ought to rekyle a little forrid.’ He was particularly interested in the first rude attempts at the afterwards famous mitrailleuses [machine guns]; on one occasion he worked one with his own hands at the Arsenal, and sent forth peals of Homeric laugh as the balls, which had not power to penetrate the target set up at a little distance, came bounding back among the shins of the bye-standers. He accompanied Colonel Hiram Berdan one day to the camp of his sharp-shooters and there practiced in the trenches his long-disused skill with the rifle. A few fortunate shots from his own gun, and his pleasure at the still better marksmanship of Berdan led to the arming of that admirable regiment with breech loaders.”29
Historian Robert V. Bruce that inventors posed a potential risk to Mr. Lincoln’s life: “Consider how easily an assassin reckless of his own life might have entered Lincoln’s office with a repeating rifle or a bomb. Many men did just that, although none, luckily, with murder in their hearts. ‘On my arrival at the White House,’ on inventor remarked matter-of-factly, ‘I was ushered immediately into the reception room, with my repeating rifle in my hand and there I found the President alone.”30
President Lincoln had a an eye for wild-eyed quacks as well as an eye for useful technology. When plans for a rudimentary “coffee mill” machine gun were presented to him in August 1861, he wrote the head of Army ordnance, James W. Ripley: “If ten of the repeating guns, of the pattern exhibited to me this morning, by Mr. Mills, near the Washington Monument in this City, shall be well made, and furnished to the government of the U.S. within, or about thirty days from this date, I advise that the government pay for them double the sum which good mechanics of that class shall say the material, and labor of making and delivering here are worth.” Mr. Lincoln added: “Good mechanics, as I learn, having estimated the single value of the labor and materials of one of these guns, with its attachments, at $615, and having added nothing for the delivery here, I advise that Mr. J.D. Mills, who delivered ten of these guns here, be paid thirteen hundred dollars for each gun, or thirteen thousand for the ten, being already delivered; and I request Gen. Ripley to take proper measures for having it paid at once.”31
Robert Bruce wrote Mr. Lincoln’s in weapons technology was an important contribution to the war effort. Bruce wrote that “although he suffered setbacks, proof kept piling up that Lincoln’s fight for new weapons had not been in vain.” Bruce cited the experience of Dr. Richard Gatling, who invented an improved version of the machine gun that began to be used in 1864. “‘I assure you my invention is no ”Coffee Mill Gun,”’ Gatling had written Lincoln in January 1864. But while Lincoln lived, the public persisted in calling the Gatling a coffee-mill gun , and the public was not far wrong. Gatling’s 1862 model was built fundamentally on the coffee-mill principle, even to its separate steel chambers and hopper fee. And whatever Dr. Gatling may have thought, he profited from the similarity. Coffee-mill guns had already seen action. To the bureaucratic mind, this mean that the Gatling guns were ‘improved’ weapons, not ‘new’ weapons; and that made a difference. Thanks to Lincoln, in order words, machine guns were no longer ‘new-fangled gimcracks.'”32
Mr. Lincoln’s foresight was useful when anti-draft, anti-negro mobs roamed New York City in mid-July 1863. Historian George Milton Fort wrote that “The management of the Times feared that the mob would turn on them just as it had sought to invade Greeley’s Tribune the preceding day. Therefore [Henry J.] Raymond’s paper made hasty preparations to defend its quarters. In some way, three Gatling guns were procured from the authorities at Washington – the tradition of the paper has it to this day that Raymond’s friendship with the President led the latter to have them sent.” Fort wrote: “These Gatling guns had been invented in 1862 by a genius in Indianapolis, Dr. Richard J Gatling, who offered them to the War Department, with indifferent results But the Ordnance Department of the army turned a cold shoulder upon this brilliant new weapon, the tactical need for which had already been discerned by many field commanders out of grim experience of the lack thereof.” According to Fort, “it was said that the President managed to smuggle three of these army rejects to the New York Times. One of them was mounted on the roof, so that its field of fire could sweep the street in either direction. The others were set up just inside the business office.” 33
President Lincoln often witnessed demonstrations of military ordnance at the Navy Yard in Washington where Captain John Dahlgren was in charge. One demonstration of signal rockets proved dangerous. Robert V. Bruce wrote: “On November 15, 1862, Lincoln drove down to the Navy Yard with Secretary of State Seward and Secretary of the Treasury Chase, picking John Dahlgren at his office in the yard. Their destination was a trial of the Hyde rocket. Down by the river, the eminent visitors gathered around the perforated iron-cylinder launching tube at which Lieutenant Commander Mitchell was setting up the test. When the rocket was ready, the onlookers stepped back a few paces, out of the way of the rocket trail, prepared to see the new weapon zoom up over the river and burst, pocking the water’s surface with the fragments of its case.” Bruce noted: “Instead came a blast and a puff of fire – the rocket had exploded in its stand!” Fortunately, the President escaped injury. 34
On scientific questions, President Lincoln often consulted with the director of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Joseph Henry, despite the fact that Henry’s political views were anti-emancipation and virtually pro-secession. Treasury official Lucius Chittenden wrote that Dr. Henry “was an eminent physicist before he was called to his present position. His original investigations, especially in light and electricity, were of great value, and but for his inborn modesty would have credited him with the invention of the art of telegraphy.” 35 Journalist Charles Carleton Coffin wrote: “Professor Henry spent many evenings in the family apartments at the White House. It was a great relief to the President, after the personal perplexities of the day, to converse with one of the foremost scientists of the age.” 36 Dr. Henry told Chittenden: “He has shown a comprehensive grasp of every subject on which he has conversed with me. His views of the present situation are somewhat novel, but seem to me unanswerable. He has read many books and remembers their contents better than I do.” President Lincoln told Chittenden: “My visits to the Smithsonian, to Dr. Henry, and his able lieutenant, Professor Baird, are the chief recreations of my life…These men are missionaries to excite scientific research and promote scientific knowledge. The country has no more faithful servants, though it may have to wait another century to appreciate the value of their labors.”37
David Homer Bates of the War Department’s telegraph office recalled that “some one proposed that we should make a test of signaling at night by means of a calcium light, which could be displayed and screened at will by the use of a button, operated by hand, in the same manner as a telegraph-key is manipulated; the alternate flashes of light, long or short, representing the dashes and dots of the Morse alphabet.” A demonstration for President Lincoln was arranged, using the Smithsonian as one terminus and the President’s summer residence at Soldier’s Home in northeast Washington as the other. Bates wrote “We were able to send Morse signals to the roof of the Smithsonian and receive responses…Professor Joseph Henry was present and witnessed our experiments. Mr. Lincoln was greatly interested in this exhibition and expressed the opinion that the signal system of both the army and navy could and would be improved so as to become of immense value to the Government.”
President Lincoln also took an interest in the military use of balloons being promoted by Thaddeus Lowe to Secretary of War Simon Cameron in mid-1861. On June 16, Lowe sent President Lincoln a telegraph from his balloon: “This point of observation commands an area near fifty miles in diameter – The city with its girdle of encampments presents a superb scene – I have pleasure in sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station and in acknowledging indebtedness to your encouragement for the opportunity of demonstrating the availability of the science of aeronautics in the military service of the country.” 38 Shortly, thereafter, Lowe presented his ideas to General Winfield Scott, the army’s aging commander whose ideas of warfare did not include balloons. Despite the support of the President and Smithsonian’s Joseph Henry, nothing happened until after the Union’s disastrous defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run a month later. On July 25, Lowe met with President Lincoln. According to Lowe, Mr. Lincoln spoke of the Battle of Bull Run and “expressed the thought that had general McDowell had the information that only observations from a balloon could give, the result might have been different.” 39 President Lincoln wrote a note: “Will Lieut. General Scott please see Professor Lowe, once more about his balloon?” 40 But Lowe grew frustrated when he was rebuffed four times in an attempt to see Scott so he returned to the White House. President Lincoln reportedly took him in to see Scott himself. President Lincoln told General Scott: “This is my friend Professor Lowe, who is organizing an Aeronautics Corps for the Army, and is to be its Chief. I wish you would facilitate his work in every way, and give him a letter to Admiral Dahlgren”, Commandant of the Navy Yard, and one to Captain Meigs, with instructions for them to give him all the necessary things to equip his branch of the service on land and water.”41
As President, Mr. Lincoln met with distinguished scientist Louis Agassiz. Journalist Noah Brooks recalled “One Sunday evening last winter (1864-1865), while sitting alone with the President, the cards of Professor Agassiz and a friend were sent it. The President had never met Agassiz at that time, I believe, and said, ‘I would like to talk with that man; he is a good man, I do believe, don’t you think so?’ But one answer could be returned to the query, and soon after the visitors were shown in, the President first whispering, ‘Now sit still and see what we can pick up that’s new.’ To my surprise, however, no questions were asked about the Old Silurian, the Glacial Theory, or the Great Snow-storm, but, introductions being over, the President said: ‘I never knew how to properly pronounce your name; won’t you give me a little lesson at that, please?’ Then he asked if it were of French or Swiss derivation, to which the Professor replied that it was partly of each. That led to a discussion of different languages, the President speaking of several words in different languages which had the same root as similar words in our own tongue; then he illustrated that by one or two anecdotes, one of which he borrowed from Hood’s ‘Up the Rhine.’ But he soon returned to his gentle cross-examination of Agassiz, and found out how the Professor studied, how he composed, and how he delivered his lectures; how he found different tastes in his audiences, in different portions of the country. When afterward asked why he put such questions to his learned visitor he said,’Why, what we got from him isn’t printed in the books; the other things are.”42
But Mr. Lincoln may have had another objective in quizzing Agassiz. The President apparently had not given up on his “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions” and may have wanted some tips for his post-presidential life as a lecturer. Brooks reported that Mr. Lincoln “said that many years ago, when the custom of lecture-going was more common than since, he was induced to try his hand at composing a literary lecture – something which he thought entirely out of his line. The subject, he said, was not defined, but his purpose was to analyze inventions and discoveries – ‘to get at the bottom of things’ – and to show when, where, how, and why such things were invented or discovered; and so far as possible, to find out where the first mention is made of some of our common things. The Bible, he said, he found to be the richest store-house for such knowledge; and he then gave one or two illustrations, which were new to his hearers.” Brooks recalled: “Agassiz begged that Lincoln would finish the lecture, sometime. Lincoln replied that he had the manuscript somewhere in his papers, ‘and,’ said he, ‘when I get out of this place, I’ll finish it up, perhaps, and get my friend Brooks to print it somewhere.’ When these two visitors had departed, Agassiz and Lincoln shaking hands with great warmth, the latter turned to me with a quizzical smile and said, ‘Well, I wasn’t so badly scared, after all, were you?’ He had evidently expected to be very much oppressed by the great man’s learning.”43


  1. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants , p. 350 (David Davis Interview with William H. Herndon, September 20, 1866).
  2. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Eighth Circuit, p. 69.
  3. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, pp. 505-506. (Letter from Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon, December 8, 1866).
  4. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Adeline Judd), p. 270.
  5. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 138.
  6. Robert V. Bruce, Abraham Lincoln and the Tools of War, pp. 10-11.
  7. Osborn H. Oldroyd, editor, The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles (T. W. S. Kidd), pp. 448-450.
  8. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln,, Volume II , p. 315 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Peter H. Watson, July 23, 1855).
  9. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editors, Herndon’s Informants, p. 186 (Letter from Joseph Gillespie to William H. Herndon, January 31, 1866).
  10. Rufus Rockwell Wilson, editor, Lincoln Among His Friends: A Sheaf of Intimate Memories, pp. 130-131. (Charles S. Zane, Sunset Magazine, October 1912)
  11. Robert V. Bruce, Abraham Lincoln and the Tools of War, pp. 11-12.
  12. Emanuel Hertz, editor, The Hidden Lincoln (Letter of William H. Herndon), p. 113.
  13. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, pp. 477-478.
  14. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Lincoln, pp. 239-240.
  15. Don E. and Virginia E. Fehrenbacher, editors, Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln, p. 71.
  16. Henry Clay Whitney, Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, p. 209.
  17. CWAL, Volume II (First Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions), April 6, 1858, pp. 437-444.
  18. William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, p. 362.
  19. CWAL,, Volume III, pp. 356-363 (Second Lecture on Discoveries and Invention, February 11, 1859).
  20. Diana Schaub, “How to Think about Bioethics and the Constitution,” American Enterprise Institute (http://www.aei.org/publications/pubID.20654,filter.all/pub_detail.asp), June 7, 2004.
  21. Brian Dirck, Lincoln the Lawyer, p. 96.
  22. John William Starr, Lincoln and the Railroads, p. 111.
  23. John William Starr, Lincoln and the Railroads, pp. 111-112.
  24. Brian Dirck, Lincoln the Lawyer, pp. 96-97.
  25. Ida M. Tarbell, Life of Abraham Lincoln, Volume I, p. 122.
  26. CWAL, Volume III (Speech to Wisconsin Agricultural Fair), October 1, 1859, pp. 476-477.
  27. Robert V. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, p. 14.
  28. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times,: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, William O. Stoddard (White House Sketches, No. 5), pp. 162-163.
  29. Michael Burlingame, editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings , p. 134 (“Life in the White House in the Time of Lincoln”).
  30. Robert V. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, p. 142.
  31. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), First Supplement, p. 92. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to James W. Ripley, August 17, 1861.
  32. Robert V. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, p. 291.
  33. George Milton Fort, Abraham Lincoln and the Fifth Column, pp. 148-149.
  34. Robert V. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, p. 219.
  35. Lucius Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, p. 235.
  36. Charles Carleton Coffin, Abraham Lincoln, p. 278.
  37. Lucius Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration, pp. 237, 238.
  38. Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Transcribed and Annotated by the Lincoln Studies Center, Knox College. Galesburg, Illinois (Telegram from Thaddeus Lowe to Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1861).
  39. Charles M. Evans, The War of the Aeronauts: The History of Ballooning in the Civil War, p. 84.
  40. CWAL,,Volume IV p. 460. (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Winfield Scott), July 25, 1861).
  41. Charles M. Evans, The War of the Aeronauts: The History of Ballooning in the Civil War, pp. 86-87.
  42. Michael Burlingame, editor, Lincoln Observed: Civil War Dispatches of Noah Brooks, pp. 202-203.
  43. Charles Segal, editor, Conversations with Lincoln, pp. 365-366.