Abraham Lincoln, inventor – only president with a patent?

Lincoln’s (and Darwin’s) birthday rolls around again next week. What do we know about our 16th president who was the subject of a great and a silly movie in the last year?

Some wag sent out this Tweet today.

Any visitor to Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello knows of Jefferson’s wide-ranging interests, and work in science and invention.  I was rather surprised to discover the depth of George Washington’s inventive work, in a seminar sponsorred by the Bill of Rights Institute at Mount Vernon a few years ago.

Abraham Lincoln, too?


Sangamon River near Lincoln’s first home in Illinois – Photo from Wikipedia

Lincoln lived along the Sangamon River, and he saw development of the river for commercial navigation to be a boon for his district’s economic growth.  Unfortunately, the Sangamon is not deep; boats had difficult times navigating over the many logs and snags, and shallows.

So, Mr. Lincoln offered a technical solution, for which he was granted a patent in 1849.  Details below, from Google Patents:



Drawing for Abraham Lincoln’s patent of a boat bouying apparatus.

Was Lincoln the only president to get a patent?  Thomas Jefferson and George Washington worked hard at inventions.  Jefferson shared Ben Franklin’s view that new inventions should be for the benefit of all; does that mean he didn’t seek patents?  Washington’s inventions — including the 16-sided barn for threshing wheat — tended to be improvements on processes; I don’t know of any evidence he even thought of patenting any idea.

It’s possible that Lincoln was the only president so far to have held a patent.

Lincoln’s invention was never built, and that patent never used.

This is an encore post with additions.

More, and miscellany:


4 Responses to Abraham Lincoln, inventor – only president with a patent?

  1. […] Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub: Abraham Lincoln, Inventor? […]


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    History of the USPTO, according to Wikipedia (lotsa links there):

    The U.S. Constitution, which is the foundation of US patent law, was drafted during the Industrial Revolution. Adopted in 1789, the Constitution grants Congress the power “to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries”. At this time, John Fitch was developing his steam boat. It is believed that the Constitutional Committee went to see a trial of the steam boat. The Industrial Revolution and the quest for technology, prompted a pro-patent environment throughout the 19th century.[2]

    On April 10, 1790, the first U.S. Patent Act was passed into law.[7] The Patent Act empowered any two of: The Secretary of State, the Secretary of War, and the Attorney General to grant a patent to a petitioning inventor for an invention “not before known or used” “if they shall deem the invention or discovery sufficiently useful and important”. This Act provided for patents to last for 14 years. A description of the invention had to be submitted to attain a patent. Since this inception of statutory patent law for the United States in 1790, the Patent Act has been periodically amended or replaced. One of the first statutory bars to the Patent Act stated that an invention which had been publicly used could not be granted a patent; however, this was later modified to allow for a grace period.

    In 1793 the first Patent Act was modified, by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, to include a definition of a patent which persists till date, “any new and useful art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter and any new and useful improvement on any art, machine, manufacture or composition of matter.”.[2][8] Between 1790-1793, a total of 55 patents were granted, and by July 2, 1836 a total of 10,000 patents had been granted.[9]

    On July 4, 1836 the Patent Office became a part of the State Department as a result of the enormous dissatisfaction on hearings on patent appeals. After the transfer, all patent applications had to be submitted to the Patent Office. The Patent Office would determine the novelty of the invention and decide if a patent should be granted. At the same time, the law changed to allow for a 7-year extension to the 14-year limit on a patent. In this revision of the Patent Act, inventors had to detail their invention in their patent application. The revision removed the nationality and residency requirement to file for a US patent; however, the filing fees continued to vary per race.

    On July 13, 1836, Patent Number 1 was granted. In 1836, The Patent Office also went back and renumbered all previous patents with a suffix “X”. Prior to this, patents were listed by names and dates and not numbers. After the renumbering, the very first US Patent became Patent 1X. On December 15 of the same year, a fire demolished the Patent Office, and only 2,845 patents were recovered. This resulted in a law that required all patent applications to be submitted in doubles. This law for double copies of patent applications was dropped in 1870 when the Patent Office started printing.[10]


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    There was an earlier patent office — in the British invasion of 1814, it was the only official building in Washington the British did not torch. Nor sure how the office operated prior to 1836, but the instruction to look after them is in the Constitution, and there was an office prior to 1836, prior to the death of Jefferson by at least a dozen years.

    You raise some interesting issues to track down. Got more light to shed?


  4. Jaycubed says:

    Since both Washington & Jefferson died well before the creation of the modern U.S. Patent Office in 1836, and only a small number of the preceding “x” Patents survived a fire later that year, it would be very hard to say whether either of them had been granted a patent. It would certainly not be impossible.


Please play nice in the Bathtub -- splash no soap in anyone's eyes. While your e-mail will not show with comments, note that it is our policy not to allow false e-mail addresses. Comments with non-working e-mail addresses may be deleted.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: