Happy Birthday to Abraham Lincoln, America’s First Tech-Lawyer

Lincoln in his lawyer phaseAbraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. He was probably our greatest President. Putting aside the tears honest Abe must now be shedding over his political party, it is good to remember Lincoln as an exemplar of a U.S. lawyer. All lawyers would benefit from emulating aspects of his Nineteenth Century legal practice and Twenty First Century thoughts on technology. He was honest, diligent, a deep thinker and ethical. Very ethical. He did not need to be lectured on Cooperation and Rule 1. He also did not need to be told to embrace technology, not hide from it. In fact, he was a prominent Tech-Lawyer of his day, well known for his speaking abilities on the subject. Near the end of his legal career Abe was busy pushing technology and his vision of the future. Sound familiar dear readers? It should. Most of you are like that.

Close up of Lincoln's face on April 10, 1865

Lincoln Was a Technophile

Lincoln was as obsessed with the latest inventions and advances in technology as any techno-geek e-discovery lawyer alive today. The latest things in Lincoln’s day were mechanical devices of all kinds, typically steam-powered, and the early electromagnetic devices, then primarily the telegraph. Indeed, the first electronic transmission from a flying machine, a balloon, was a telegraph sent from inventor Thaddeus Lowe to President Lincoln on June 16, 1861. Unlike Lincoln’s generals, he quickly realized the military potential of flying machines and created an Aeronautics Corps for the Army, appointing Professor Lowe as its chief. See Bruce, Robert V., Abraham Lincoln and the Tools of War. Below is a copy of a handwritten note by Lincoln introducing Lowe to General Scott.

Lincoln's handwritten introduction of Professor Lowe

At the height of his legal career, Lincoln’s biggest clients were the Googles of his day, namely the railroad companies with their incredible new locomotives. These newly rich, super-technology corporations dreamed of uniting the new world with a cross-country grid of high speed transportation. Little noticed today is one of Lincoln’s proudest achievements as President, the enactment of legislation that funded these dreams, the Pacific Railway Act of 1862. The intercontinental railroad did unite the new world, much like the Internet and airlines today are uniting the whole world. A lawyer as obsessed with telegraphs and connectivity as Lincoln was would surely have been an early adopter of the Internet and an enthusiast of electronic discovery.  See: Abraham Lincoln: A Technology Leader of His Time (U.S. News & World Report, 2/11/09).

Abraham Lincoln loved technology and loved to think and talk about the big picture of technology, of how it is used to advance the dreams of Man. In fact, Lincoln gave several public lectures on technology, having nothing to do with law or politics. The first such lecture known today was delivered on April 6, 1858, before the Young Men’s Association in Bloomington, Illinois, and was entitled “Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions.” In this lecture, he traced the progress of mankind through its inventions, starting with Adam and Eve and the invention of the fig leaf for clothing. I imagine that if he were giving this speech today (and I’m willing to try to replicate it should I be so invited) he would end with AI and blockchain.

In Lincoln’s next and last lecture series first delivered on February 11, 1859, known as “Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions,” Lincoln used fewer biblical references, but concentrated instead on communication. For history buffs, see the complete copy of Lincoln’s Second Lecture, which, in my opinion, is much better than the first. Here are a few excerpts from this little known lecture:

The great difference between Young America and Old Fogy, is the result of Discoveries, Inventions, and Improvements. These, in turn, are the result of observation, reflection and experiment.

Writing – the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye – is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination which necessarily underlies the most crude and general conception of it, great, very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and of space; and great, not only in its direct benefits, but greatest help, to all other inventions.

I have already intimated my opinion that in the world’s history, certain inventions and discoveries occurred, of peculiar value, on account of their great efficiency in facilitating all other inventions and discoveries. Of these were the arts of writing and of printing – the discovery of America, and the introduction of Patent-laws.

Can there be any doubt that the lawyer who wrote these words would instantly “get” the significance of the total transformation of writing, “the great invention of the world,” from tangible paper form, to intangible, digital form?  Can there be any doubt that a lawyer like this would understand the importance of the Internet, the invention that unites the world in a web of inter-connective writing, where each person may be a printer and instantly disseminate their ideas “at all distances of time and of space?”

Lincoln standing by his generals in the field; close up

Abraham Lincoln did not just have a passing interest in new technologies. He was obsessed with it, like most good e-discovery lawyers are today. In the worst days of the Civil War, the one thing that could still bring Lincoln joy was his talks with the one true scientist then residing in Washington, D.C., the first director of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Joseph Henry, a specialist in light and electricity. Despite the fact that Henry’s political views were anti-emancipation and virtually pro-secession, Lincoln would sneak over to the Smithsonian every chance he could get to talk to Dr. Henry. Lincoln told the journalist, Charles Carleton Coffin:

My visits to the Smithsonian, to Dr. Henry, and his able lieutenant, Professor Baird, are the chief recreations of my life…These men are missionaries to excite scientific research and promote scientific knowledge. The country has no more faithful servants, though it may have to wait another century to appreciate the value of their labors.

Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, p. 219.

Lincoln was no mere poser about technology and inventions. He walked his talk and railed against the Old Fogies who opposed technology. Lincoln was known to be willing to meet with every crackpot inventor who came to Washington during the war and claimed to have a new invention that could save the Union. Lincoln would talk to most of them and quickly separate the wheat from the chaff. As mentioned, he recognized the potential importance of aircraft to the military and forced the army to fund Professor Lowe’s wild-eyed dreams of aerial reconnaissance. He also recognized another inventor and insisted, over much opposition, that the army adopt his new invention: Dr. Richard Gatling. His improved version of the machine gun began to be used by the army in 1864, and before that, the Gattling guns that Lincoln funded are credited with defending the New York Times from an invasion by “anti-draft, anti-negro mobs” that roamed New York City in mid-July 1863. Bruce, Lincoln and the Tools of War, p. 142.

As final proof that Lincoln was one of the preeminent technology lawyers of his day, and if he were alive today, surely would be again, I offer the little known fact that Abraham Lincoln is the only President in United States history to have been issued a patent. He patented an invention for “Buoying Vessels Over Shoals.” It is U.S. Patent Number 6,469, issued on May 22, 1849. I could only find the patent on the USPTO web, where it is not celebrated and is hard to read. So as my small contribution to Lincoln memorabilia in the bicentennial year of 2009, I offer the complete copy below of Abraham Lincoln’s three page patent. You should be able to click on the images with your browser to enlarge and download.

Lincoln Patent Pg. 1
Lincoln Patent Pg. 2Lincoln Patent Pg. 3 (Drawings)

The invention consisted of a set of bellows attached to the hull of a ship just below the water line. After reaching a shallow place, the bellows were to be filled with air that buoyed the vessel higher, making it float higher and off the river shoals. The patent application was accompanied with a wooden model depicting the invention. Lincoln whittled the model with his own hands. It is on display at the Smithsonian and is shown below.

Lincoln Hand-Carved Wooden Model of Patent

Lincoln Filing Invention at Patent Office (fictionalized depiction)

Conclusion

On Abe Lincoln’ birthday it is worth recalling the long, prestigious pedigree of Law and Technology in America. Lincoln is a symbol of freedom, emancipation. He is also a symbol of Law and Technology.  If Abe were alive today, I have no doubt he would be, among other things, a leader of Law and Technology.

Stand tall friends. We walk in long shadows and, like Lincoln, we shall overcome the hardships we face. As Abe himself was fond of saying: down with the Old Fogies; it is young America’s destiny to embrace change and lead the world into the future. Let us lead with the honesty and integrity of Abraham Lincoln. Nothing less is acceptable.

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