Lincoln the Inventor

The complete story of Abraham Lincoln’s invention and patent,
and how his mechanical genius shaped his life.

Southern Illinois University Press
112 pages

$12.95 paper, $24.95 cloth
Now available on or direct from Southern Illinois University Press

Read an excerpt from the book in the February 2009 issue of Civil War Times magazine!

Lincoln the Inventor in the News

“Book Reveals the Inventive Side of President Lincoln,” Journal Gazette-Times Courier [Charleston, Ill.], Feb. 16, 2009

“Abraham Lincoln: A Technology Leader of His Time,” U.S. News & World Report, Feb. 11, 2009

“Washington Commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s Bicentennial,” Scripps Howard News Service, Feb. 11, 2009.

“The Inventor President,” The New Atlantis, Number 23, Winter 2009, p. 131.

“Abraham Lincoln the Early Adopter,”, Feb. 14, 2009.

Advance Praise for Lincoln the Inventor

Abraham Lincoln is the only U.S. president ever to have patented an invention. At first, this seems little more than a useful piece of historical trivia. And so it might be, except for Jason Emerson’s patient reconstruction of how Lincoln obtained his patent, invented his ship-rescue device, and let his mind stray to the subject in the first place. That solitary invention is a window into the mental geography of Abraham Lincoln, a concentrated, unsentimental, unromantic, mathematically-precise mind, teeming with self-taught curiosity about the inner causes and springs of action — whether of men or machines. You will come away from Lincoln the Inventor the wiser for understanding how the mind that devised a patent for floating grounded riverboats could also be the same mind that turned out the perfectly-balanced phrases of the Gettysburg Address, labored to promote transportation as the keystone to economic mobility, and piloted emancipation through the shoals of war.

Allen C. Guelzo, author of Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America

Lincoln the Inventor is an excellent book presenting new information about Abraham Lincoln, providing still another example of his intellectual genius. This well-organized and thoroughly researched work adds to Jason Emerson’s growing reputation as a young Lincoln scholar of note.

Richard W. Etulain, author of Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West

Book Synopsis

In addition to his other accomplishments, Abraham Lincoln was the only U.S. president to hold a registered patent. Jason Emerson offers the first treatment of Lincoln’s invention of a device to buoy vessels over shoals and its subsequent patent in May 1849 as more than mere historical footnote. As Emerson demonstrates, Lincoln’s scientific curiosity helped drive his lifelong intellectual development and influenced his treatment of inventors and innovators both as a lawyer and as president.

In this fresh contribution to the field of Lincoln studies, Emerson shows how, when, where, and why Lincoln created his invention and demonstrates how his penchant for inventions and discoveries informed his political belief in internal improvements and free-labor principles. Lincoln’s interest in the topic led him to try his hand at scholarly lecturing; later, as president, Lincoln encouraged and occasionally contributed to the creation of new weapons for the Union.

During his extensive research, Emerson uncovered correspondence between Lincoln’s son Robert and his presidential secretary, John Nicolay, that revealed the existence of a previously unknown draft of Abraham Lincoln’s lecture “Discoveries and Inventions” (the known draft of which is included in this book). Emerson not only examines the creation, delivery, and legacy of this lecture, but he also reveals for the first time how Robert Lincoln owned this unknown version, how he lost and later tried to find it, the indifference with which Robert and Nicolay both held the lecture, and the decision to give it as little attention as possible when Nicolay and John Hay published President Lincoln’s collected works in 1894.

The story of Lincoln’s invention extends beyond a boat journey, the whittling of some wood, and a trip to the Patent Office; the invention had ramifications for Lincoln’s life from the day his flatboat became stuck on a milldam in 1831 until the day he died in 1865. In addition to giving a complete examination of this important yet little-known aspect of Lincoln’s life, Emerson delves into Lincoln’s intellectual curiosity and creativity, both as a civilian and as president, and considers how those traits contributed to his greatness and allow new insight into his character. By learning to understand Lincoln the inventor, readers will better understand Lincoln the man.