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Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War

Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, Washington, D.C., Through July 6

Like other inventions before it, Patent No. 6,469 was born of necessity and personal experience. Issued May 22, 1849, the patent was for a device designed to buoy vessels over shoals, using inflatable  bellows that could temporarily raise a boat over any obstructions. It had been invented by an Illinois lawyer who in his younger days had served on riverboats that had gotten horribly stuck. That inventor, of course, was Abraham Lincoln, who remains the only U.S. president to hold a patent.

Although his patented device was never manufactured, Lincoln maintained a lifelong fascination with technology and invention. This is the subject of a new exhibit at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, a museum and meeting facility that opened across the street from the historic theater in 2012.

“Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War” is a cooperative exhibition between the Ford’s Theatre Society and the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, Tenn., with many images and artifacts on loan from that museum and others. The 40-artifact exhibit takes up one small gallery of the center, which also has permanent exhibits about the president’s leadership, assassination and legacy.

Although the exhibit is limited in depth by the gallery’s size, it nevertheless provides a pithy overview of technological advances during the war. One prominent artifact is a period telegraph. Although electrical telegraphy had been in use throughout the 19th century, wartime exigencies put the device to the test. Under Lincoln’s leadership, the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps was created in 1861, and Lincoln himself spent hours at the telegraph office monitoring messages from his  generals. Another display includes firearms developed during the war, including the seven-shot repeating Spencer rife, which Lincoln test-fired himself.

One long wall is lined with illustrations and artwork showcasing wartime technology, such as a volley gun that featured a 25-barrel battery that could fire .58- or .52-caliber rounds. Although  Union Ordnance Chief James Wolfe Ripley rejected the gun, most likely because of its limited field of fire, its  inventors appealed to the president himself, who witnessed a demonstration and urged that the weapon be put into service. (Although limited, the gun did see some action, according to the museum, primarily to defend bridges.)

Photography is also highlighted with stereographic images and cartesde-visite, mini-portraits that were so widely traded in the 1860s that the fad was called “cardomania.” The exhibit includes ornate CDV albums and even a CDV of John Wilkes Booth, a stage legend who had legions of female admirers before he turned to his second career as an assassin.

The most affecting part of the exhibit, however, is the section devoted to Lincoln’s patent, which includes a replica of his buoyancy device. This was a man who wanted the world to work better, and he carried that vision into his presidency.


Originally published in the July 2014 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.