June 20, 2024


Science It Works

Lincoln was the science president

Despite his limited education, he grew up enthralled by science, math and technology, and he remains the only president to hold a patent. In later life, he discovered the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid, who helped him rethink the way he ordered information in his mind. In the White House, he helped found the National Academy of Sciences and deployed science in every way that he could to win the Civil War. Even when writing his great speeches, he may have been thinking in scientific patterns.

Lincoln’s turn toward science was all the more surprising for his rustic upbringing, far from any library or laboratory. He once recalled that if a straggler came into southern Indiana with a rudimentary knowledge of Greek or Latin, he was looked upon as a “wizzard,” which he spelled with two z’s, as if to prove the point. When schooling was available, Lincoln eagerly seized the opportunity, and the earliest Lincoln manuscripts show a patient devotion to copying out math problems.

But schoolteachers came and went, and books were hard to come by. He turned to the book of nature instead, building rafts and flatboats to ferry passengers around the Ohio River. He was soon regarded for his “quick river eye” and ability to see shifting currents and snags below the surface — an invaluable education for a future president.

After moving to Illinois, Lincoln turned away from the rivers and toward the law. His habits of careful observation continued to serve him well. While still in his 20s, he worked as a surveyor, learning geometry and trigonometry. Throughout his legal career, he retained a strong interest in math and science, which came in handy in a busy state capital full of inventors suing one another for patent infringement.

Lincoln’s star rose as he mastered these subjects, and he became an inventor himself in 1849, when he received patent No. 6469 for the invention of a device that would help lift a steamboat over dangerous shoals. Once again, his “river eye” served him well, as he worked with a local mechanic to build a wooden model of his device, now in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. According to legend, Lincoln did some of the whittling himself.

Lincoln’s interest in science deepened in the years that followed. He gave speeches on discoveries and inventions, and avidly read scientific books to stay current. Lincoln’s fellow lawyers grew used to a surprising sight out on the circuit, as Lincoln carried the volumes of Euclid everywhere that he went. In a short sketch he wrote to introduce himself to the American people in 1860, the year of his election, he explained that he had “studied and nearly mastered” Euclid’s six books. His law partner, who knew his reading habits, later wrote that the immersion in geometry had allowed him “rigid mental discipline,” especially in “logic and language.”

There’s a fascinating clue in there, to anyone seeking to understand the magic of Lincoln’s oratory. Yes, we love the cadences, the poetry, but there is geometric rigor, as well. Listeners were drawn to his crystalline logic and cool detachment. In an overheated, emotional era, he calmed things down by focusing on the facts.

Sometimes his speeches owed more to Euclid than listeners understood. Euclid often wrote of “propositions,” to be proved through careful steps. Similarly, the Gettysburg Address begins with the “proposition” that all men are created equal, then moves efficiently through the “proof” of that proposition, supported by the geometric precision of the graves, the devotion of the soldiers and the determination of the living to honor their sacrifice. The famous first sentence begins with one mathematical concept — four score and seven — and ends with another, “equal.” It is among the most important words in the speech.

Science served Lincoln well throughout a presidency that embraced knowledge at every step. The National Academy of Sciences, founded in 1863, was a sign of the rapidly growing trust between scientific experts and the federal government. That trust was proved over and over in the Civil War, when the North’s vastly superior knowledge networks showed their value, developing faster communications, better health care and more accurate weapons. Lincoln often tested the new guns personally.

He drew other inventive types in government, as well, including railroad and telegraph men. A recent trove of documents describing the spread of telegraphs during the war was just acquired by the Huntington Library in California. Lincoln’s army sent about 6.5 million telegraphic messages during the war, and information vastly accelerated during his four years in office. That, too, is a Lincoln legacy.

In addition to the huge achievement of crushing slavery — which had suppressed literacy among millions of African Americans — Lincoln built a vast new infrastructure of knowledge, with new railroad and telegraph lines to California, and public universities linked to the Morrill Act. Today, more than 75 land-grant colleges trace their origins to this act, including several historically Black universities.

It would be difficult, even for Lincoln, to imagine the range of problems confronting his successor in 2021. But on this Presidents’ Day, it may bring comfort to remember these words, from the end of Lincoln’s 1862 message to Congress. No problem is too large, if we forget the “dogmas” of the past and examine each problem with scientific self-assurance: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”