Tech Presidents Day: George, Tom and Abe
Posted by dorian on February 15, 2010
February 11, 2010
The Library of Congress has this manuscript of George Washington’s first State of the Union address.
Jan. 8, 1790: During his first — and the nation’s first — State of the Union address, President George Washington urges the young nation to encourage the sciences and literature, calling knowledge “the surest basis for public happiness.”
He also called for importing “useful inventions from abroad” while encouraging homegrown genius to flourish, by means of offering patent protection for inventors.
Washington was trained as a surveyor, and he attached great importance to the study of science and literature. His views also reflected the general attitude of the gentry toward classical education. The Founding Fathers, most of who came from this class, were children of the Enlightenment, the philosophy of rationalism that rose in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Faith in science was a central pillar of that philosophy.
Washington, of course, was also looking to the country’s economic future, not to mention its military security.
Washington, who delivered his address at Federal Hall in New York City, saw these kinds of presidential pronouncements as a unifying force. He was also fulfilling his obligation to the Constitution, which stipulates that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
That first address was focused very much on the business of nation-building. Among Washington’s other suggestions:
- The establishment of a strong standing army. (”To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”)
- The establishment of a national university to bind the “seminaries of learning already established.”
- That the government should be able to “distinguish between oppression and necessary exercise of lawful authority.”
- To welcome immigration as a means of helping the country grow.
- To provide a means of “pacifying” restive Indian tribes posing a threat to settlers encroaching on their lands.
In response to Washington’s request , Congress passed a patent act. Washington signed it into law April 10, and the United States granted its first patent July 31, 1790. —Tony Long
March 10, 1797: Thomas Jefferson reads a scientific paper in 1797 that’s considered the first American contribution to vertebrate paleontology.
Much like W.C. Fields in a later century, Jefferson did not want to be in Philadelphia. After serving as the first secretary of state under President George Washington, he had returned to Monticello in 1793. But when Washington declined to run for a third term in 1796, the Republican (later Democratic-Republican) Party drafted him to run against Federalist John Adams. Jefferson came in second and — under the system then in place — became vice president.
So Jefferson made the difficult 10-day journey to the capital — then in Philadelphia — to be sworn in on March 4 and preside over the Senate. Philadelphia, however, had a silver lining. Jefferson’s book, Notes on the State of Virginia had won him the admiration of American scholars, and they had elected him president of the American Philosophical Society, a distinguished association founded by Ben Franklin and others in 1745.
For his presidential address to the group on March 10, the new vice president of the United States read a paper, “A Memoir on the Discovery of Certain Bones of a Quadruped of the Clawed Kind in the Western Parts of Virginia.” The bones belonged to an extinct, ox-sized, clawed sloth of the genus Megalonyx.
Jefferson’s paper was published in 1799 in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society Held at Philadelphia for Promoting Useful Knowledge, Vol. IV. A French naturalist in 1822 assigned the sloth the name Megalonyx jeffersoni.
Jefferson remained as president of the Philosophical Society until 1815, during which time he served one term as vice president of the United States and, oh yeah, two terms as president. When President Jefferson enlisted Lewis and Clark in 1803 to explore the Louisiana Purchase, he made sure their Corps of Discovery was trained and equipped to make scientific observations.
The Sage of Monticello was also an architect and inventor. He designed his home at Monticello and the original campus of the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and also supervised design of the Virginia state capitol at Richmond. As a talented inventor, he came up with a wheel-shaped mechanical cypher-decypher machine, automatic double doors, and improvements to plows, sundials, clocks, beds, bookstands and several devices that copied writing.
Despite all this, and despite his position on the board that oversaw the first U.S. patent law, Jefferson held no patents himself. He was an open source kind of guy and believed it necessary for inventors to be rewarded, but distrusted a system that could be abused to keep needed innovations from reaching public use.
President John F. Kennedy paid tribute to his predecessor in 1962 when he held a White House dinner honoring all 49 living U.S. Nobel Prize recipients. He told the august assemblage, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”
Jefferson’s own selection of just three things to list on his tomb reflect his core values. Notably omitting his presidency, they concentrate on liberty and learning:
Author of the Declaration of American Independence
Of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom
And Father of the University of Virginia.
March 10, 1849: Abraham Lincoln files for a patent, starting a process that would make him the only U.S. president to patent an invention.
Abraham Lincoln was born and raised in what was then America’s West. And he didn’t have Jefferson’s education or the privileges of a landed slaveholder. You might expect, therefore, that his tech contribution would be of a more mechanical, practical nature.
Mechanical, certainly. Practical, not quite.
Lincoln was known to be adept as a boatman who once engineered a stranded flatboat off a mill dam by shifting cargo and drilling a temporary hole to let out bilge water. As a boat passenger on another occasion, he observed a captain use planks and empty barrels to lift his stranded vessel off a river sandbar.
Lincoln’s first political platform — as a candidate for the Illinois legislature in 1832 — paid considerable attention to river navigation. He lost that election but eventually served a term in the U.S. Congress from 1847 to 1849. It was during that term that he was inspired by watching the talented captain use flotation to free his stranded boat.
Lincoln set to work to design a system of inflatable india-rubber cloth bags that, theoretically, could be built into or added to any boat. It was a complex arrangement of ropes, pulleys, spars and bags. His patent application called it
a new and improved manner of combining adjustable buoyant air chambers with a steamboat or other vessel for the purpose of enabling their draught of water to be readily lessened to enable them to pass over bars, or through shallow water, without discharging their cargoes.
Lincoln filed for the patent March 10, 1849, a week after completing his term as congressman.
Patent 6,469, which the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says is the only one held by an American president, was issued to
Lincoln on May 22, 1849. He built a scale model with the help of a local mechanic, but Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon said, “The invention was never applied to any vessel, so far as I ever learned.”
Nonetheless, a dozen years later, inventor Lincoln would be steering the nation through treacherous shoals.
This material originally appeared in separate Wired.com stories on Jan. 8 and March 10, 2009.