WASHINGTON – To historian and writer Jason Emerson,Abraham Lincoln was more than a lawyer,politician and emancipator of slaves – he was an intellectual and an inventor with a curiosity about the world and its workings.
“To understand Lincoln the inventor is to better know Lincoln the man,” Emerson said. “The legend of him as a prophet and martyr has kind of dimmed everything else.”
Emerson described Lincoln as a “mechanical genius” with interest in discovery,mechanics and science.
Emerson spoke earlier this week about his book,”Lincoln the Inventor,” one of several events at the National Archives and elsewhere in the capital in honor of Thursday's bicentennial of the birth of the 16th president of the United States.
“What a lot of people don't know is that Lincoln was actually a cyborg of the future,” Emerson said,prompting the crowd to laugh.
Emerson focused on Lincoln's invention of a device to buoy vessels over shallow waters,or more simply,”a system to get a boat unstuck from a sand bar,” and how Lincoln's inventiveness shaped his presidency.
Lincoln's invention was given U.S. Patent No. 6469,May 22,1849,but was never manufactured. He is the only U.S. president to ever hold a patent,according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. A model of the device is displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
The National Archives began its celebration in January and has more programs planned through the week and into June. The Library of Congress,the Newseum and the National Gallery of Art are also hosting exhibits and lectures.
Toy manufacturers are taking advantage of the celebration,too.
Lincoln Logs made a bicentennial edition of its classic toy,and K'NEX put a comparable product on store shelves.
Lincoln was known to take machines apart and study them until he understood how they worked,Emerson said.
“He's actually been rather ignored as an inventor,” he said. “He is underestimated in his mechanical genius and his intellect as well.”
Emerson said Lincoln was “intricately involved” in war and military inventions,so it's impossible to know how many inventions he influenced or contributed to as president.
The book is Emerson's second. His first,”The Madness of Mary Lincoln,” was released in 2007.
“It was very interesting,a very small aspect of Abraham Lincoln,” said Martha Harmon,65,a professional archivist from Ellsworth, Maine,who attended the lecture.
Still to come is a lecture and discussion with former senator George McGovern on his new book,”Abraham Lincoln,” Thursday at the National Archives,and a lecture and film series ending in June.
“I hope to come to George McGovern's lecture on Thursday,” Harmon said. “There are some interesting exhibits both at the National Museum of American History and here at the archives.”
To honor Lincoln's bicentennial and Presidents Day on Monday,the National Archives will display from Thursday to Monday the official original Emancipation Proclamation,signed by Lincoln. The document has been exhibited annually since 1993,though not always at the National Archives.
Cooper said thousands of visitors are expected for the free event. The document was last displayed at the National Archives in 2006.
Another author with a fascination for Lincoln,James Swanson,will speak on his new book,”Chasing Lincoln's Killer,” a young reader's version of his recent best-seller “Manhunt:12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer,” Saturday at the Newseum.
Other family friendly activities taking place Saturday at the Newseum include learning to use a telegraph and how it was used to spread news during Lincoln's presidency,an opportunity to meet Lincoln and hear his speeches,and a chance for children to make their own stovepipe topper hat modeled after Lincoln's.
“I'm glad Lincoln has endured this long,” said Emerson,who expects scholars and historians will continue to learn new things about the “historic figure.”
Also on Thursday,a wreath-laying ceremony will take place at the Lincoln Memorial. Guests include four-time Grammy Award-nominee Michael Feinstein and poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanna.
The ceremony will be followed by a breakfast in West Potomac Park,a sold-out ticketed event,and a Bicameral Celebration of Abraham Lincoln's Bicentennial: A Congressional Tribute,hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi,D-Calif.,to be held in the Captiol's Rotunda and open to members of Congress.