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Lincoln’s Patent

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William Herndon spent part of 1848 watching bemusedly as his law partner, Abraham Lincoln, sat at his office desk intently whittling a strange-looking wooden ship.  Looking up from time to time, Lincoln would excitedly explain how his invention would bring about a revolution in the burgeoning steamboat industry.  Lincoln’s design, which became U.S. Patent No. 6469, details the invention of an inflatable bellows system meant to improve the navigation of boats in shallow waters.  In effect, four balloons would be collapsed, accordion-like, and attached to both sides of a riverboat on either end.  If the boat found its way obstructed by a sandbar, the balloons would be filled with air in order to raise the hull higher than the bar, allowing passage without having to unload the cargo and carry the boat manually.  This issue was particularly important to the inventor, who had spent part of his youth on the treacherous Sangamon River and had twice run aground on high shoals.  Lincoln’s patent was never implemented and was in fact lost for many years after a fire in the patent office.  Throughout his life Lincoln expressed a strong philosophical love for the patent system.  Lincoln’s model and his drawings are now on display in the Smithsonian. 


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