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IP In History: Honest Abe's Patent

March 2, 2017


Hey, everyone! Today I am launching a new series of posts that will try to inject a little bit of excitement into intellectual property. I am sure you are wondering to yourself, "can IP BE any more interesting?" Yeah, right. Well, welcome to "IP in History" - my counterintuitive attempt to enhance your IP knowledge by mixing in a little bit of that bad boy subject you were warned about - history!  


I hope you enjoy.




We all know Abe...


You know..."Honest Abe" Lincoln. 


Sixteenth President of the United States. Writer and orator of the Gettysburg Address. The issuer of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the victim of an unbelievable assassination at Ford's Theatre by pretty boy actor, John Wilkes Booth.


Here is something that I bet you didn't know about our former president:  


Abraham Lincoln is the only president in history to have a patent on an invention.


That's right, he was solving problems well before the Civil War. Having a patent might not seem like much of an accomplishment, but let's compare him to some of our more innovative presidents. Our third president, Thomas Jefferson, is credited with having invented several things, including a plow that could plow on a hillside, a dumbwaiter with the ability to store wine, and best of all, a machine for making elbow macaroni.  Jefferson had plenty of ideas, no doubt, but one thing Jefferson lacked was a patent.



So, what did Lincoln patent?


I take pride in saying that Lincoln was living in my home state of Indiana when he was faced with the problem that he would later attempt to remedy. He spent plenty of time during his teenage years on a floatboat transporting goods down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and it wasn't uncommon that the boat would become stranded in shallow water. When a boat became stuck, the crew would have to lighten it by removing cargo before they could resume their journey downstream - a daunting task, as you can imagine.


It wasn't until many years later that Abe came up with a patentable way to solve this problem. He began working on his invention in 1948 while he was still a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He filed for his patent in 1949 at the age of forty - just days after ending his only term in the House, and almost twelve years before taking office as President.


His patent describes "a new and improved manner for combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steamboat or other vessel" that would "enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes." In other words, Abe Lincoln came up with a better way to strap inflatable bags to boats to raise them out of the water enough to clear obstacles. Below is a side-view of a vessel equipped with the president's invention (highlighted in yellow) taken from his published patent.



And the happy ending?


I am sad to say that Lincoln never made a cent off of his idea. In fact, it was never even manufactured. But, it takes a special type of person to push an idea through the patent system. It takes a person in the pursuit of innovation who seeks changes for the better - changes for mankind.  There is little argument that Lincoln's later actions and greatest achievements proved that he possessed this type of character.


Lincoln was a huge proponent of the patent system. Ten years after receiving his patent (and still prior to his presidency), Lincoln gave his second speech on discoveries and inventions. It contained the following words, and it is the best way I can think to conclude today's post.


"Before [the patent laws] 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."


"[I]n 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."


"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.”


- Abraham Lincoln

Excerpts from "Discoveries and Inventions"

April 6, 1958


Chat with one of our patent attorneys today.

 About the Author:


David "Tyler" Bennett is an intellectual property attorney and a partner at

Verhagen | Bennett LLP.  To learn more about David, please click here.


For questions or comments about this post, please email David directly at: David@VerhagenBennett.com


To make suggestions about future posts, please email: Info@VerhagenBennett.com



© 2017 David T. Bennett — This article is for general information only. The information presented should not be construed to be formal legal advice nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship.