Abraham Lincoln received Patent No. 6469 for a device to lift boats over shoals on May 22, 1849. The invention was never manufactured. However, it did make him the only U.S. president to hold a patent. Abraham Lincoln whittled the model for his patent application with his own hands out of wood. It is on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History.
The invention consisted of a set of bellows attached to the hull of a ship just below the water line. After reaching a shallow place, the bellows were filled with air that buoyed the vessel higher, making it float higher. The invention was never marketed, it was discovered that the extra weight the device added increased the probability of running onto sandbars, defeating the purpose of the invention.
Abraham Lincoln’s View on the Patent System
Abraham Lincoln called the introduction of patent laws one of the three most important developments “in the world’s history,” along with the discovery of America and the perfection of printing. Lincoln declared that “The patent system added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius.”
George Washington and the First Patent Act
Washington urged the First Congress to enact a patent statute as expressly authorized by the U.S. Constitution and wisely advised that “there is nothing which can better deserve your patronage than the promotion of science . . .” Washington was perturbed that Congress had delayed this important legislation until their second session.
In 1790, the first patent statute initiated the transformation of the United States from an importer of technology to a world leader in technological innovation.
It is reported that Washington’s interest in a patent statute was fueled by his encounter with James Rumsey at an inn where both were staying. Rumsey showed Washington a model of his invention: a mechanical boat that could propel itself upstream by grappling on the bottom. Washington wrote a letter of recommendation for Rumsey. Rumsey used Washington’s letter to obtain patents and support for his inventions from various state legislatures. However this process required so much labor that it sparked Washington’s interest in supporting inventors. Washington pushed for both the patent and copyright clause to the Constitution and urged Congress to pass the First Patent Act.
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