Abraham Lincoln: A Two-Way Innovator

by | Feb 23, 2009 | Evaluation Ideas | 0 comments

Abraham Lincoln was a tinkerer. He loved all things mechanical. “He evinced a decided bent toward machinery or mechanical appliances, a trait he doubtless inherited from his father who was himself something of a mechanic and therefore skilled in the use of tools.” Henry Whitney, a lawyer friend of Lincoln’s, recalled that “While we were traveling in ante-railway days, on the circuit, and would stop at a farm-house for dinner, Lincoln would improve the leisure in hunting up some farming implement, machine or tool, and he would carefully examine it all over, first generally and then critically.” Abe was a man of considerable mechanical genius. He had The Knack. His patent, Patent No. 6469, a device for buoying vessels over shoals, makes him the only U.S. president to hold a patent.

What kind of innovator was Lincoln? Was he a PROBLEM-TO-SOLUTION inventor? Did he first observe problems and then create solutions? Or was he a SOLUTION-TO-PROBLEM inventor whereby he first envisioned hypothetical solutions and then connected them to worthy problems? My sense is he was both. He was “ambidextrous,” a two-way innovator.

Accounts of Lincoln’s life suggest this. From The New Atlantis:

“As a young man, Lincoln had spent some time on riverboats, transporting farm produce and other cargo down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. In 1848, then-Congressman Lincoln was a passenger on a boat in shallow Illinois waters when a passing boat ran into a sandbar. He watched as the captain ordered his crew to place anything that would float—especially empty barrels and boxes—under the sides of the boat for buoyancy. That incident was the direct inspiration for Lincoln’s invention: “buoyant air chambers” made of “water-proof fabric”; they could be inflated and deflated as needed to help keep a boat afloat.”

From Henry Reske at U.S. News and World Report:

“Although Lincoln was a weapons aficionado, perhaps his greatest contribution to the war effort was his use of the telegraph. Tom Wheeler, author of Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War, notes that Lincoln hadn’t even seen a telegraph in operation until 1857. That was 22 years before the invention of the light bulb, a time when electricity was a vague scientific concept and sending signals through wires “mind boggling.” Lincoln was fascinated and quizzed the operator about how the telegraph worked. “If he were alive today, we’d call him an early adopter,” says Wheeler. As Wheeler recounts in his book, when Lincoln took office the White House had no telegraph connection. The invention’s technical applications were in its infancy. Lincoln “developed the modern electronic leadership model,” Wheeler says.”

Lincoln innovated in both directions. He solved problems. He problematized solutions.

Abe Abe is a relative of mine. We are second cousins, four times removed*. I wonder what might have been had he not been so busy with his other job. My bet is he would have been a prolific inventor given how well he performed in his other endeavors. Imagine if he had learned a systematic innovation method. Abraham Lincoln would have been well ahead of his time, on the order of DaVinci, Altshuller, Fuller, and Disney, had he taken the innovation path.

*Special thanks to Barbara Clements (my first cousin) for her many years of dedicated work tracking our family genealogy.