Abraham Lincoln: A Technology Leader of His Time

Despite his image as a log-splitting bumpkin, technology fueled Lincoln's presidency.

President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln

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If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he would fight just as hard to keep his BlackBerry as President Barack Obama did.

Despite his popular image as a log-splitting bumpkin and small-time country lawyer, Lincoln had an avid interest in cutting-edge technology. As an attorney, he represented railroads. During the Civil War, he haunted the telegraph office (which provided the instant-messaging of its day) for the latest news from the front and was actively involved in directing troops. He encouraged weapons development and even tested some new rifles himself on the White House lawn. He is the only U.S. president to hold a patent (No. 6469, granted May 22, 1849). It was for a device to lift riverboats over shoals. Jason Emerson, author of Lincoln the Inventor, notes that the 16th president was a product of an American age of innovation, invention and expansion, was intensely inquisitive, and possessed a mechanical mind and a need to know how things work. "He never came across a machine or invention or scientific idea that he did not stop to investigate, both physically and mentally," Emerson says. "He not only created his own invention but had ideas for other inventions, such as an agricultural steam plow and a naval steam ram, [and] was fascinated by patent cases as an attorney and also by new innovations during the Civil War."

Lincoln easily fits into the "notion of America as a land of tinkerers," says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian James McPherson. "Here is someone with no particular training in the construction of boats, navigation, and the like but with some experience in riverboat travel who draws on that experience for a patentable idea," he says. In his book, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief, McPherson writes that "during the war Lincoln functioned at times as chief of ordnance, ordering the hidebound Brig. Gen. James Ripley, who officially held that position until the president forced his retirement in September 1863, to test new weapons offered by inventors."

His interest in weapons was part curiosity and part desire to get the best for Union soldiers and sailors and win the war. McPherson says that Lincoln personally tested both the Spencer seven-shot rifle and the seven-shot carbine. "I think he may also have tested one or more versions of the Sharps single-shot breach-loading rifle," McPherson adds. "He also tested the 'coffee-mill gun'—an early version of a hand-cranked machine gun. He watched the testing of big naval guns at the navy yard on the Anacostia River and developed a close friendship with John Dahlgren, head of the navy yard (later an admiral) and a weapons expert. When Lincoln went to West Point in June 1862 to consult with Winfield Scott, he also went a little farther up the Hudson to the Cold Spring Armory to watch the testing of Parrott rifled artillery."

Although Lincoln was a weapons aficionado, perhaps his greatest contribution to the war effort was his use of the telegraph. Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War, notes that Lincoln hadn't even seen a telegraph in operation until 1857. That was 22 years before the invention of the light bulb, a time when electricity was a vague scientific concept and sending signals through wires "mind boggling." Lincoln was fascinated and quizzed the operator about how the telegraph worked. "If he were alive today, we'd call him an early adopter," says Wheeler.

As Wheeler recounts in his book, when Lincoln took office the White House had no telegraph connection. The invention's technical applications were in its infancy. Lincoln "developed the modern electronic leadership model," Wheeler says. "He went through three phases. The first 14 months he barely touched the telegraph. On May 24, 1862, he had an electronic breakout and began using the telegraph to give direct orders for troop movements. Cursed with poor generals, the telegraph gave him the tool to project himself to the front. [Union Maj. Gen. George] McClellan was bogged down on the peninsula [east of Richmond, Va.], and [Confederate Maj. Gen. "Stonewall"] Jackson was threatening Washington. Lincoln took command to maneuver forces to confront Jackson. When, in 1864, he finally found the leader he and the nation deserved in [Lt. Gen. Ulysses] Grant, his use of the telegraph evolved again. With Grant he built the modern leadership model. He used the telegraph to monitor, to track to see what was going on, to enhance his eyes and ears. It gave him a keyhole into the general's headquarters where he could say, 'I see you are worrying about this—this is what I think.' "