Abraham Lincoln And Future-Thinking Presidents


February 15, 2016

The United States has long been at the forefront of technological innovation. Cisco, Microsoft, Google, and many other companies in the Silicon Valley were all founded in the US. It only follows that our presidents would be tech savvy as well, and while President Barack Obama may be the first sitting president to use a smartphone, email, or (arguably) personal computer, many recognized the value of cutting edge technology and incorporated it into their presidency. The 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, is a perfect example of someone who promoted technological advances. Though he lived in the 19th century, a time before the internet, personal computers, or really the modern conception of technology, Lincoln himself used technology in one of the nation’s most dire times.


Abraham Lincoln’s Invention

Before his presidency, Lincoln was a patent lawyer, and before that he worked as a laborer for the owner of a general store named Denton Offutt. Offutt had contracted Lincoln to travel to New Orleans in his stead.

Along the way, Lincoln’s boat became caught on a milldam, a small dam constructed to make a millpond. The boat began to sink, but Lincoln and his fellow crew members drilled a small hole in the bottom of the boat that allowed the water to drain. After the hole was plugged, the crew was just able to free themselves and continue their journey.

Lincoln made it to New Orleans, but he didn’t forget the experience. When later in life a similar event happened to him again, he set to work inventing a way around such a situation. Once complete, Lincoln filed a patent for his invention, and utilizing his years as a patent lawyer, he understood the process very well.


No. 6,469 Patent for “Buoying Vessels over Shoals”

The device consisted of long narrow expandable containers fixed to the bottom of the boat. If a crew found themselves moored on a milldam, debris, or sandbar, they could simply pump air into the device. The buoyant chambers would expand with air and shift the boat off and away from the obstacle. Then unobstructed, the boat could continue on.

On May 22, 1849, Lincoln’s patent was filed and approved. Though still some years before his presidency, he would become the first and only president to hold a patent.


Abraham Lincoln and the Telegraph

The first U.S. patent for the telephone wasn’t approved until 1876, and so Lincoln’s presidency never had access to it. Instead, the primary form of long distance communication was the telegraph. Developed in the 1830s and 40s, the telegraph used electrical pulses to transmit beeps of different lengths to receivers on the other end of a wire. The beeps, or Morse code, is not all the different from the binary computing language used today by our digital devices.

In the 1860s, people didn’t have telegraphs in their homes. They would instead travel to the local telegraph office and request that the office send a message to another telegraph elsewhere. That message then needed to be transcribed onto paper and physically delivered to the recipient.

The process sounds incredibly inefficient to our modern ears, but before the telegraph, news moved at the speed of a horse or boat. This was an astounding improvement.

Lincoln was the first president to insist that a government telegraph be installed in the White House for ease of communication with the president. This network served Lincoln well in the Civil War, and some historians believed played a factor in the success of the Union in the conflict.

Before Lincoln, even presidents would need to send runners to the telegraph office to transmit their messages like everyone else.


Other Notable Technological Firsts by Presidents — 100 Years of Innovation

Throughout the generations, the presidency needed to adapt to new technologies with the rest of the public, but Lincoln set a trend. His milestone was the telegraph, and private communication technology for the White House. Presidencies since his term have continued this trend all the same.

  • 1841 – First Photograph of a Sitting President: William Henry Harrison, 9th President of the United States
  • 1877 – First President to Install a Telephone: Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th President of the United States
  • 1922 – First President to Install a Radio in the White House: Warren G. Harding, 29th President of the United States
  • 1924 – First President to Perform a Radio Broadcast from the White House: Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States
  • 1947 – First Presidential Address on Television: Harry Truman, 33rd President of the United States
  • 1955 – First President Seen in Color: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States
  • 1958 – First President to Conduct American Satellite Communication: Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States

After the 1960s, it’s questionable what technology was used when. Certainly, Clinton, Bush, and W. Bush, had access to personal computers and, in Clinton and W. Bush’s case, email, but whether or not they personally used them is up for debate.

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For Further Reading

The Technology of Inauguration Day through the Years

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