Abraham Lincoln's Patent Model: Improvement for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals

Grade Range: K-12
Resource Type(s): Artifacts, Primary Sources
Date Posted: 7/31/2008

Abraham Lincoln's interest in canal building, river commerce, and internal improvements not only drew him to the Whig and later Republican Party, but also led him to try his hand at designing a device for raising boats off sand bars. Undertaken while he was a 40-year-old lawyer in Illinois, Lincoln's patent illustrates an idea he had for lessening the draft of a river craft by pushing horizontal floats into the water alongside the hull when near shoal waters. On May 22, 1849, he was granted Patent No. 6469 by the U.S. Patent Office (USPO) in Washington, D.C. This boat model, submitted with the drawings of his idea, is inscribed "Pat./May 22/49/Abram Lincoln" on the surface of the upper deck. According to a Lincoln biographer, the President visited the Patent Office during his presidency (1861–1865) and inspected his model. His considerable talents lay elsewhere, and the idea he patented was never formally applied in the construction of a watercraft.

In early 1997, the original patent drawing submitted in 1846 was discovered in the director's office at the USPO, lacking only the president's autograph in the lower right corner.

This patent model is one of approximately 10,000 acquired by the Smithsonian Institution, mostly from the US Patent Office. Of that number, about 75 are of maritime inventions, including some in the Engineering Collections. The Maritime Collections hold a replica of the Lincoln patent model since the original is too fragile to loan. The NMAH Political History Collections hold a copy of the patent papers associated with this model, as well as a considerable amount of other Lincoln-related materials.