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Book Reviews

Lincoln the Inventor

July 3, 2021

Jason Emerson (Carbondale, IL, Southern Illinois University Press, 2009, 112p., $12.95.

The author confesses: “This is an unconventional book. It’s really an extended monograph in two sections rather than a typical book with numerous chapters … I have always enjoyed and admired short works; they get straight to the meat of a subject, without extraneous rhetoric and verbiage. While relatively uncommon today, such diminutive books were often done in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, usually as personal recollections, and in the Lincoln field, I can many that I have found valuable.”

Indeed, this work falls into that category. It relates the development of Lincoln’s patent and puts it in context. “”It showed mechanical genius of his mind and his way of thinking and anaIyzing, his penchant for expanding his learning and understanding disciplines other than politics, his fidelity to the political belief of internal improvements, his attempts at scholarly lecturing, and his admiration and fostering of invention and innovation as president… his penchant for math and science reflected his desire for exactness in everything he did, from surveying, to the law, to military planning, and even to his study of grammar and his writing … As Lincoln himself said in his lecture on discoveries and inventions, ‘In one word, by means of writing, the seeds of invention were more permanently preserved, and more widely sown’ … This was his genius: his indefatigable desire to advance his knowledge, to create, and to improve the world which he lived by that creation.”

We learn not only that Lincoln’s original patent model, some of which he carved himself, still exists and is housed at the Smithsonian Institution, but that a second model which retained apparently has been lost. After his single term as Congressman ended, Lincoln stayed in Washington a couple of weeks longer to submit his patent application. Once the application was approved, Lincoln never attempted to market the device, so it was never put to practicable use, although its principles were incorporated into subsequent submarine and salvage technology.

The first part of the book deals with the invention itself. The second part talks about Lincoln’s lectures on discoveries and inventions, delivered between 1857 and 1860. Lincoln left two drafts or fragments of his lecture, which were deposited in the famous “Grimsley trunk.” They were eventually sold and still exist. Some experts believed they represented two distinct lectures; others felt they were components of but a single lecture. Interestingly, Lincoln brought a third draft of the lecture with him to Washington in 1861. He thought enough of the work to contemplate its publication after he left office. The unpublished manuscript was part of the papers retained by Robert Todd Lincoln, but could not be found when requested by Nicolay & Hay for their upcoming biography.

The lectures generated mixed results. At some venues, Lincoln was well-received and got favorable notice in the papers. At another, so few people showed up that Lincoln gave them back their admission fees and declined to deliver his talk. Typically, Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon spoke disparagingly of the effort. He probably felt that Lincoln was not cut out for the lecture circuit and should stick to politics, while guided by the sage advice of colleagues.

The book reprints the text of the “first” and “second” lectures on discoveries and inventions. These are incomplete, which is obvious from their brevity and reminiscences by eyewitnesses that the talks included a section on the therapeutic affects of laughter, here lacking. Lincoln let people know “where he was coming from” in some opening remarks: “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 printing – the discovery of America, and the introduction of Patent-laws.”

Having never read these lectures and, in spite of Herndon’s disapproval, I found them quite entertaining. They are permeated by the “light touch” of dry humor. The first lecture is, no doubt, the less interesting of the two, often making references to events cited in the Bible. Yet, in their methodical reference to popular history, they remind me of the Cooper Union Address. The second lecture is particularly noteworthy in its comparison of “Young America” and Old-Fogyism. Lincoln was certainly a nationalist himself, in the “Young America” mold and felt that western civilization (i.e., America) was far superior to that of Europe and Asia, marked by unlimited potential and eternal progress. This also has some racial overtones. When Lincoln discusses the discovery of gold in California, he says the old world Spaniards and “Mexican greasers” lived there for centuries and missed the gold that was right under their noses (there goes the Hispanic vote!). His discussion of “Young America” remains, however, a brilliant piece of political satire. He cites the “invention of the negro” in the capacity of a slave. He says “Young America” will help other nations establish democracy by invading their territory, only on the condition that the native people are opposed to it and have vast tracts of land. Without that land, their quest for democracy can be put off for hundreds of years, as far as we’re concerned. Lincoln was obviously focused on the Mexican War which he had disastrously opposed during his tenure in Congress (in the company, we should add, of U. S. Grant). It is unfortunate that we don’t have a video of the lecture, as many references lost on us were easily grasped and savored by those truly privileged to attend.

In any event, this remains a pleasant and refreshing work, especially if one will take the time to carefully peruse the “Discoveries and Inventions” lectures … denigrated in their time, but now worthy of study.