Celebrity Invention: Abraham Lincoln's Boat Floater

By Rebecca Greenfield

Thumbnail image for celebrityinvention.jpgSome celebrities aren't just pretty faces. A few of them are also touched with that Yankee prowess for tinkering and invention. In this weekly series, we introduce you to the Patents of the Rich and Famous. And maybe you learn a little bit about how patent literature works along the way.

Inventor: Abraham Lincoln

Known For: A leader of the abolitionist cause, Abraham Lincoln holds a special place in this magazine's bindings. Starting in 1860, just before the presidential election, then editor James Russell Lowell wrote an editorial supporting Lincoln's candidacy. Since then, The Atlantic has continued its love affair with Lincoln, publishing a series of personal recollections after his death, and numerous other articles throughout the decades.

With his 202nd birthday celebration on its way (his actual birthday falls on February 12) we will take the time to commemorate Lincoln's other notable achievements.

Invented Apparatus: "Buoying Vessels Over Shoals"

abelincolnedit.jpg

It's a buoy add-on for a boat so that it doesn't get stuck in shallow waters. As he explains in his patent, Lincoln conceived of adding two buoyant chambers to the side of a water vessel, which would fill with air, elevating the boat.

I ... Have invented a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steamboat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or though shallow water, without discharging their cargoes

To employ the device, once the boater reaches a shallow area, a series of ropes and pullies turn the chambers down into the water while simultaneously filling with water, thus lifting the boat.

What I claim as my invention and desire to secure by letters patent, is the combination of expansible buoyant chambers placed at the sides of a vessel, with the main shaft or shafts C, by means of the sliding spars or shafts D, which pass down through the buoyant chambers and are made fast to their bottoms, and the series of ropes and pullies or their equivalents, in such a manner that by turning the main shaft or shafts in one direction, the buoyant chambers will be forced downwards into the water and at the same time expanded and filled with air for buoying up the vessel by the displacement of water; and by turning the shaft in an opposite direction, the buoyant chambers will be contracted into a small space and secured against injury.

smithsonianEDIT.jpgRationale Behind Invention: Lincoln had an affinity for boats, but he also knew the problems they encountered in shallow water. As a young lawyer, Lincoln handled transportation cases, especially those involving river barges, eventually representing a case involving a canal boat that sank after hitting a bridge in front of the Supreme Court.

He also experienced two displeasing boating incidents. While taking merchandise down the Mississippi his boat slid and got stuck on a dam. A few years later, while boating on the Great Lakes, Lincoln's ship encountered a sand bar, getting stuck again. With all of this boating experience, Lincoln took the initiative to fix the problem himself.

Off-Label Uses: Imagine young Abe on the Mississippi, just around Valentine's Day, taking a lady out on the water to celebrate both his birthday and their love. He feigns fear as they encounter a sand bar -- they are sure to get stuck. But then, he busts out his buoying device, not only saving the day, but creating the perfect floating picnic table, thus impressing his lady.

Future Directions: Boat technology has come a long way since the 1800s. But a nice addition might be a cup-holder, a fishing pole slot and other tools for lazy days spent floating down the river.

Peruse more Celebrity Inventions.

Images: 1. Google Patents; 2. Smithsonian Institution.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/02/celebrity-invention-abraham-lincolns-boat-floater/71427/