“Buoying Device”

The 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, is known for many accomplishments, not the least of which is guiding the nation through the Civil War. One of his achievements that is little known is his success as an inventor. He is the only U.S. President to have ever received a patent, which was granted on March 10, 1849 for a device for “buoying vessels over shoals."

Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809 in Hodgenville, Kentucky. He was educated primarily at home and through self-education and was formally taught in a school for a total of less than one year. He became an attorney, and in 1834, he entered the political arena when he won a seat in the Illinois state legislature. He served four terms there. In 1846, he was elected to serve as a U.S. Congressman. He served one term from March 1847 to March 1849.

Lincoln is said to have held a lifelong fascination with mechanical things and a steadfast appreciation for invention and technology. He had traveled by boat on several occasions in his young life, but one situation arose a few times during these trips that inspired him to invent. Once on a trip to New Orleans from Springfield, Illinois, his ship ran aground. Then, in 1848, while he was travelling aboard a steamboat up the Detroit River, the vessel got stuck on the shoals off of Fighting Island.

These instances had apparently set the wheels in Lincoln’s head turning. Upon his return to Illinois after the Detroit River trip, he began fleshing out an idea for a boat equipped with inflatable bellows on each side, located just below the waterline. If the boat ran aground, the bellows would be inflated, effectively lifting the boat over the shoals so that it could maneuver back into deep water. Lincoln fashioned a wood model of his idea and brought it to Washington with him. He applied for and received a U.S. patent, No. 6,469, on May 22, 1849. According to the Smithsonian Institution, his application read, "Be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, of Springfield, in the county of Sangamon, in the state of Illinois, have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steam boat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes."

Lincoln’s buoying device was never manufactured. Nevertheless, his personal interest in invention and innovation was reflected throughout his professional life. In 1858, for example, he called the introduction of patent laws one of the most important developments in history and continued to support new development in weaponry, ships, and other technologies.

In 1860, Lincoln was elected President of the United States. He served in this office until his untimely death. He was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth and died on April 15, 1865. He had established a reputation as a trailblazer. He served as the nation’s first Republican Party President, was the first President to sport a beard, and was the first President to receive a transcontinental telegram (from Stephen John Field, the Chief Justice of California). The Smithsonian Institution acquired the woodcarved model upon which his patent was based from the Patent Office in 1908. It is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.