Notes from the Director: Presidents and Invention :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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Arthur Molella, Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director

With the inauguration just around the corner, we turn our attention to presidents and invention. In these perilous economic times, practically everyone agrees that the nation will need strong presidential leadership to regain its edge in innovation. I can't wait to see what Barack Obama does to fulfill his campaign pledge to spur innovation and improve American competitiveness in business and technology. In the communications area, where he has promised next-generation broadband and universal Internet access, the incoming president has already demonstrated his innovation credentials. With his creative use of the Internet to raise funds, he ran one of the most technologically sophisticated presidential campaigns since FDR turned radio into a formidable political tool and flew into the 1932 Chicago Democratic convention in a Ford Tri-Motor, nicknamed the Tin Goose. 

Since the beginning of the republic, Americans have expected their political leaders to support and stand for innovation. A number of technophile chief executives have occupied the White House, starting with George Washington, a strong promoter of roads, canals, and military technology, and continuing with technical experts and engineers such as Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter. But what about presidents as inventors? 

In that department, Thomas Jefferson has no rivals. Not only was he one of the fathers of the U.S. patent system, he was an estimable inventor in his own right, as any visitor to Monticello can attest. Among the devices that he improved or created himself are the Great Clock in the entrance hall, a novel moldboard for a plow, and a wheel cipher for sending coded messages. On display in the exhibit The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden here at the National Museum of American History are his improved polygraph, which creates simultaneous copies of a writer's manuscript, and a portable lap desk of his own design, on which he penned the Declaration of Independence. 

Although the polymathic Jefferson encouraged invention in every office he occupied, including serving on the first committee of patent examiners when he was secretary of state, he held no patents himself. Despite these official roles, he was openly skeptical of patenting, because he believed it undermined every man's right to invent, a violation of his deeply held democratic values.  You might say he was a forerunner of today's "open source" advocates, though for somewhat different reasons.  

Our sixteenth president, whose two hundredth birthday we celebrate this year, had no such compunction about patenting. A staunch upholder of the patent system, the mechanically inclined Abraham Lincoln in fact was the only U.S. president ever to hold a patent. One of the treasures of the National Museum of American History is the patent model Lincoln submitted for buoying riverboats over the shoals that obstructed the shallow waters of western rivers. The innovation was based on a set of inflatable chambers attached to a ship's hull just below the waterline. Although patent no. 6,469 was awarded in May 1849, Lincoln never attempted to market his invention. His patent model, early versions of which he apparently whittled himself, is now on view with explanatory animation in the Museum's new Lincoln bicentennial exhibition, Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life

Lincoln's inspiration reputedly came from many years of navigating the Mississippi, Illinois, and Sangamon rivers, where on occasion he himself ran aground. His technological enthusiasm carried unabated into his presidency, where he engaged with scientists and inventors on a regular basis. Vigorously promoting military inventions during the Civil War, his administration oversaw a "Permanent Commission" of scientists, set up to screen proposals from independent inventors for the Navy Department. In 1863, he signed the bill establishing the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the government on matters of science, technology, and invention. In the end, a lifelong engagement with technology and invention translated into presidential policy. 

While we may not expect him to add inventing to a daunting to-do list, it will be fascinating to see whether President Obama, who has publicly identified himself with Lincoln, remains as strong an advocate of inventors and invention in pursuing his ambitious technological agenda. 

From Prototype, January 2009

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