Lincoln reminds us of American inventiveness

Martin Cheek

Abraham Lincoln never visited Silicon Valley, but he would no doubt appreciate the spirit of innovation and ingenuity that exists in our global high-tech epicenter. Lincoln, whose birth date is Sunday, happens to be the only U.S. president who ever received an invention patent. That fact leads me to believe he would have a word or two to say to many of today’s politicians who are now thwarting efforts to upgrade America’s patenting system .
Much like many engineers in Silicon Valley, Lincoln was a technology geek. On May 22, 1849, he received from the U.S. Patent Office patent number 6,469 for his “Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals.” His mechanism provided a set of bellows attached to a ship’s hull just under the water line. When the ship reached a shallow spot in the river, the captain would fill the bellows with air, making the more buoyant vessel float higher. Although sound in principal, Lincoln’s apparatus proved impracticable in practice.
The model of the device that Lincoln whittled out of wood for the patent application is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. It would benefit many political leaders to stop by the exhibit, take a long look at Lincoln’s model, and ponder the American spirit for innovation. If a Kentucky-born country boy more than 150 years ago dreamed of devising an invention, one that receives a patent, to improve life for his fellow Americans, no doubt plenty of other people have similar aspirations. Unfortunately, all too often, these dreamers are intimidated from their pursuit for invention because of the labyrinthine bureaucracy of today’s American patent system.
In a speech he gave in 1858, Lincoln described the development of patent laws as – including Columbus’s discovery of the Americas and the development of the printing press – one of the three most important developments in human history. He told his listeners that before patent laws, “any man might instantly use what another man had invented, so that the inventor had no special advantage from his own invention.” He added, “The patent system changed this, secured the inventor for a limited time exclusive use of his inventions, and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius in the discovery and production of new and useful things.”
America’s geekiest president loved new inventions. During the dark days of the Civil War, Lincoln demonstrated a keen personal interest in the output of America’s inventors: weapons such as machine guns and breech-loading rifles, ironclad ships, and observation balloons that helped the Union Army to succeed in its military endeavors. He was also a man interested in the advances of transportation machines such as railroads – and strongly endorsed a transcontinental track that connected the outpost state of California to the rest of the union.
If he could visit our own time and region, Lincoln would no doubt show an eager interest in learning about the amazing communication and computing gadgets and contraptions that Silicon Valley industry pours forth upon the world. No doubt, he would ask for a tour of Cupertino’s Apple to meet many of the engineers there. Perhaps he would request a chat with the South Valley’s congressional representative, Jerry McNerney, who represents Morgan Hill. McNerney is one of the rare members of Congress to hold U.S. patents, two algorithms associated with energy-producing wind turbines.
Perhaps Lincoln would discuss with Congressman McNerney the importance of establishing a satellite patent office for Silicon Valley’s more than 160,000 engineers to conveniently use. It would be common sense to have such a satellite office here because our high-tech region outshines the rest of the U.S. in the number of applications – more than 900 a month – that it submits for patents. Stanford University in 2010 received 160 patents. And IBM, a high-tech company noted for its prestigious Almaden Research Center tucked in the hills on the northern edge of the South Valley, has been the leading patent producer in America for the last seven years.
Lincoln understood that America is a land of revolutions – political, social, and technological – powered by new ideas spun from the minds of its people. Many politicians say they want to help American businesses, but they too often interfere with American commerce by burdening the patent process – especially last year when Congress cut $800 million from the U.S. Patent Office’s budget.
The inventive 16th U.S. president would understand the tremendous need to protect U.S. inventors’ ideas – ideas that stimulate future growth in our economy and empower us to compete with nations such as China, which in 2011 for the first time passed the United States and Japan as the top patent filing nation. We are an inventive nation, Lincoln would remind us, and that is one of our greatest strengths.

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