The Little-Known True Stories Behind Well-Known Inventions

Which U.S. Presidents were the most successful inventors?

Since my hometown of Quincy, IL is named after a U.S. President -- John Quincy Adams, our 6th President -- I decided to use this week's column to focus on Presidents who toiled as inventors. By the way, there are 12 states that contain a Quincy: CA, FL, IL, IN, KS, KY, MA, MI, MO, OH, PA and WA.

While Thomas Jefferson, our nationís 3rd President, was the most accomplished inventor among all the U.S. Presidents, he did not hold a patent on any of his inventions. Only one President ever received a patent, and only one received a trademark. Who were they? Read on; the answers are at the end of the column. 

Among Thomas Jeffersonís inventions were such devices as a macaroni machine that he invented in 1787, the swivel chair, the spherical sundial, the moldboard plow and the cipher wheel, which was an ingenious way to allow people to code and decode messages. Jeffersonís cipher wheel was used until 1802, and then it was "reinvented" just prior to World War I and used by the US army and other military services to send messages back and forth. Jefferson served as American minister to France in the 1780's and, as a result of his travels throughout Europe, was able to adapt some of the things he saw in Europe to benefit Americans as well.

Jefferson felt that all people should have access to new technology and, since he didnít want others to be deprived of the benefits that new inventions bring, he never applied for a patent on any of his inventions. He considered patents to be an unfair monopoly.

Several of Thomas Jefferson's inventions are still in use today; they deal mainly with agricultural and mechanical products. He also was responsible for introducing French fries into the United States.

One of Jeffersonís most notable achievements was the founding of the University of Virginia, and this was one of only three achievements that he had listed on his tombstone.

Jeffersonís impact on the United States patent system can be seen today in the fact that each new patent application must meet three criteria before being issued a patent. A patent must be: New, not obvious, and useful. While Jefferson was the most prolific of any presidential inventor, he wasnít the only President to have some success at inventing. 

In two separate boating incidents, one as a teenager on the Mississippi River and one on the Great Lakes, President Lincoln got his boats stuck in shallow waters, known as "shoals." These two experiences inspired Lincoln to invent a solution to help him navigate his boat through shallow waters.

A wooden model of this invention, which Lincoln made himself, is in the Smithsonian Institution. The invention was never sold to the public, though. 

In 1858, Lincoln called the introduction of patent laws one of the three most important developments "in the world's history," along with the discovery of America and the perfection of printing.

During the Civil War, he took a personal interest in the development of new types of weapons: iron ships, the observation balloon, the breech-loading rifle and the machine gun.

President Washington was also a successful inventor, and in 1772 he received a trademark for his brand of flour. 

Since there haven't been very many Presidents who were considered inventors, I guess you could fish for additional Presidential inventions by insisting that President Nixon invented impeachment, and that President Clinton holds the current patent on it.

While Thomas Jefferson invented the most new products of all the Presidents, only one U.S. President has ever received a patent, and it wasnít Jefferson. Do you know which President received a patent? 

A.    George Washington
B.    Abraham Lincoln
C.    Teddy Roosevelt
D.    Harry Truman

ANSWER:  President Lincoln was issued Patent # 6,469 for "A Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals" on May 22, 1849 while still a Congressman in Illinois. If you guessed George Washington, you were close; he is the only President to receive a trademark, which he received in 1772 for his flour. 

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Newspaper Connection for Students:  Search through your newspaper over the past week to find stories about the careers of U.S. presidents before they became president. What kinds of jobs did they hold earlier in their careers? Write a short paper containing that lists the 3 most interesting jobs that you think a president has held (other than the job of being president). Write about at least one president whose previous job influenced his job as president. You might find that some presidents had really interesting jobs earlier in their careers. 

Click here to read "Here's the difference between a patent, a trademark and a copyright"
Click here to go to the N.I.E. page.


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Paul Niemann
2614 South 24th Street
Quincy, IL 62305
FAX: 217.224.7736

© 2008 Paul Niemann