Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lincoln, The Inventor - Part I - A Terrific New Book!

“Be it known that 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 through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes.”

So begins the text of United States Patent #6,469 awarded to Abraham Lincoln for a method of "Buoying Vessels Over Shoals."

Lincoln's invention, his penchant for things scientific and mechanical, and his lecture "Discoveries and Inventions" is the subject of a terrific new book - Lincoln, the Inventor - by Jason Emerson, author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln.

I purchased the book yesterday, stayed up last night to read it, and was not disappointed. Here are some hi-lights for me:

1) The book is short (about 50 pages of text with another 25 pages of Appendices). Jason Emerson makes no apologies for the shortness. In fact, he is disappointed that "the publication of short books and monographs has lessened extensively in recent years," adding, " The page count of a work should have no impact on its overall historical, literary, or pedagogical value." (p. xiii) Indeed! Mr. Emerson packs a lot of information into this short book and it is supported by a great amount of scholarship.

2) In the first part of the book, Mr. Emerson describes Lincoln's general interest in science and invention and how that played out in his personal life (he devoured books on astronomy, geometry, and mechanics), his legislative agenda (he supported infrastructure projects), and as an inventor himself (somewhat to the chagrin of his peers). I was familiar with some of the information and anecdotes from my own reading and research on Lincoln, but Mr. Emerson goes much farther. Of particular interest is his description of some of lawyer-Lincoln's patent cases.

3) In the second part of the book, Mr. Emerson concentrates on Lincoln's lecture, "Discoveries and Inventions." Of particular interest here are newspaper and first-person accounts of the reception of the lecture, and - more important - excerpts from newly discovered correspondence revealing a lost handwritten and bound copy of the lecture. It would wonderful if this became the next big find of Lincolnia.

The book includes appendices of the patent as well as the text of the lecture (such as we know it).

Mr. Emerson drew on an impressive array of archives, period newspapers, and secondary sources in telling a focused by terrific story. Highly recommended.

Later this week - in Part II - I will add to the "Lincoln as Inventor" story from my own research and reading.

No comments: