Abraham Lincoln, Technologist-in-Chief

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Amazed by the speed of the telegraph, intrigued by the possibility of wind power, the 16th president was a techno-geek through and through.

steampunk lincoln.jpg

Joel Achenbach has a wonderful feature in Sunday's Washington Post Civil War supplement on the conflict's part in industrial history, especially on Abraham Lincoln's role as "technologist-in-chief":

The telegraph came along in 1844, and information suddenly no longer moved at the speed of a horse. Since earlier in the century, the ancient sources of power -- wind, water, human and animal muscle -- had been to a great extent supplanted by the miracle of steam. Lincoln saw these changes and approved. He was a technophile, curious about contraptions, a student of machines. He became a promoter of railroads and an eager user of the telegraph.

He was even an inventor himself. He owned a U.S. government patent, which no other president before or since could boast. He had designed a mechanism for assisting a boat across shoals. ...

By 1858, the year of the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, Lincoln had developed a traveling lecture about the history of technology.

"Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship," Lincoln declared in his lecture on "Discoveries and Inventions."

As president, he was technologist-in-chief. Inventors banged on his door, wrote him letters, begged him for investment capital for their new weapons. "People knew that Lincoln was a technology geek," says curator David Miller, who works in the gun room at the American History museum. Lincoln would test-fire rifles sent to the White House.

The telegraph office was Lincoln's second home, and he would linger late into the night, hectoring generals to pursue the enemy. A president who controlled multiple theaters of war through the clipped diction of the telegraph mastered the art of the compressed message, which may help explain why the Gettysburg Address is not only short but impossible to cut.

Lincoln would have been thrilled to learn that the telegraph's 21st-century descendant makes his original words available on line here. Renewable energy advocates have already discovered his endorsement of wind power:

Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power--that is, power to move things. Take any given space of the earth's surface--for instance, Illinois--; and all the power exerted by all the men, and beasts, and running-water, and steam, over and upon it, shall not equal the one hundredth part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over and upon the same space. And yet it has not, so far in the world's history, become proportionably valuable as a motive power. It is applied extensively, and advantageously, to sail-vessels in navigation. Add to this a few wind-mills, and pumps, and you have about all. That, as yet, no very successful mode of controlling, and directing the wind, has been discovered; and that, naturally, it moves by fits and starts--now so gently as to scarcely stir a leaf, and now so roughly as to level a forest--doubtless have been the insurmountable difficulties. As yet, the wind is an untamed, and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of the wind.

And as Achenbach's quote on improvement shows, Lincoln also understood something about the anthropology of invention, long before the discovery of tool using by non-human animals. He saw that what makes people different is the cumulative ratcheting up of technology.

Recently reported experiments suggest that human children share and motivate each other in executing successively more challenging experiments; other primates don't. There is no social mechanism for improvement. The New York Times reports:

The scientists ... wondered whether adult chimps and monkeys would help their young learn.

"But in fact, we found exactly the opposite, that parents were stealing their offspring's food," Dr. [Kevin] Laland said.

In a second lecture, Lincoln even made the proto-feminist observation:

[T]he very first invention was a joint operation. Eve having shared with Adam in the getting up of the apron. And, indeed, judging from the fact that sewing has come down to our times as "woman's work" it is very probable she took the leading part; he, perhaps, doing no more than to stand by and thread the needle. That proceeding may be reckoned as the mother of all "Sewing societies"; and the first and most perfect "world's fair" all inventions and all inventors then in the world, being on the spot.

This point has been demonstrated by recent archaeology of textiles and convincingly outlined by Elizabeth Wayland Barber in Women's Work.

We can only speculate about what Lincoln, lawyer for the growing high-tech railroads, had read about technology. He must have been familiar with many works he never mentioned, but scholars and enthusiasts have continued to debate just what they were. (A good survey is here.) Unlike the founders, he was not classically educated, but this was no rhetorical handicap, as Drew R. McCoy has noted in writing on Lincoln and the ancients:

By Lincoln's time, fewer Americans accepted the relevance of ancient Greece and Rome to their more modern world of political experience; fewer Americans were being exposed to classical culture at all; and above all, liberally educated gentlemen were playing an increasingly less important role in politics and public life.

Thus it's all the more remarkable what Lincoln was able to present to audiences whose main reference point was the Bible. Lincoln was not only a great technophile but an insightful reader of Scripture.


Image: ˙Cаvin 〄/Flickr.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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