Monday, March 23, 2009

Lincoln, The Inventor - Part II - A Crisis for Scientific American Magazine!

As a follow-up to my previous post about Jason Emerson's terrific new book, Lincoln, The Inventor, I wanted to describe how Abraham Lincoln's invention caused something of a "secession crisis" - albeit a humorous one - for Scientific American magazine, way back in 1861!

Lincoln's invention first appeared in the June 2, 1849, issue of Scientific American as a short notice in its weekly list of patents issued in the previous week:

"To A. Lincoln, of Springfield, Ills., for improved method of lifting vessels over shoals."

Below are excerpts from my recent book, Lincoln's Labels: America's Best Known Brands and the Civil War (Edinborough Press), which includes an entire chapter about the important and interesting role that Scientific American magazine played in the Civil War:

In an early December 1860 issue - just weeks after the polls closed - Scientific American featured an engraving and detailed description of the President-elect’s 1849 invention, supposing “it would interest a vast number of our readers to see what sort of an invention emanated from the brain of so distinguished an official.”

They added: “The merits of this invention we are not disposed to discuss; but we hope the author of it will have better success in presiding as Chief Magistrate over the people of the entire Union than he has had as an inventor in introducing his invention upon the western waters, for which it was especially designed.”

The following April, the magazine reported with bemusement that a Northern subscriber accused them of “undertaking to cast a slur upon ‘Honest Old Abe,” and guessed that the irritated reader “jumped at the conclusion that we had trumped it [Lincoln’s invention] up for the purpose of casting ridicule upon his candidate.” The matter did not end there. Southern readers threatened to cancel their subscriptions (some actually did) and accused the Scientific American of rejoicing “over the election of a Black Republican rail-splitter.” One Southern wag wrote in feigned indignation that the “publication of His Excellency's invention would enable the Northerners to ride into Charleston at low water, and thus reinforce Fort Sumter.”

Just over four years later, in their April 22, 1865 issue, under the heading, “Our Calamity,” the magazine wrote briefly and solemnly of Lincoln’s assassination. In the May 28, 1865, issue, the magazine devoted space to a longer and more poignant eulogy to the President-inventor, recalling the December 1, 1860, engraving that precipitated the Scientific American’s own “secession troubles”; their gentle jibe in hoping that Lincoln would “have better success in presiding as Chief Magistrate over the people of the entire Union than he has had as an inventor...”; and the model of the boat Lincoln held under his arm in the office of patent attorney Z.C. Robbins:

“...a model of a different kind; carved as one might imagine a retired rail-splitter would whittle, strongly but not smoothly...The modest little model has reposed here [in the Patent Office] sixteen years - and since it found its resting place here on the shelf, the shrewd inventor has found it his task to guide the ship of state over shoals more perilous, and obstructions more obstinate than any prophet dreamed of when [he] wrote his bold autograph on the prow of this miniature steamer. The author’s skill in buoying the great vessel of state over dangerous breakers has made his name honored throughout the whole civilized world.”

No comments: