Lincoln is the only US president ever issued a patent. Inspired by his days as a river boatman, his patent covered a system for pushing floats down into the water to decrease the draft of a boat to get it off a sandbar or to traverse a shallow stretch.
But that wasn't the only patent Lincoln applied for. Years ago a Manhattan taxi driver informed me that he himself was an inventor, and had submitted several patent applications. One was for a comb that would dispense hair dressing from a built-in reservoir as you combed your hair. His patent attorney reported that the patent office rejected his application because a flock of inventors had earlier submitted patent applications for that identical invention. Among those earlier inventors of the comb with hair-dressing dispenser: Abraham Lincoln.
(At the time, the taxi driver had his patent attorney working on an application for his latest invention: a road repair truck that would patch potholes on the fly as it moved along, so their repair would not block traffic. A row of sensors across the front of the truck would measure the roadbed, to instruct a set of nozzles amidships how much blacktop to dispense and for how long; at the back was a roller to flatten down the pavement as the truck moved along with the traffic.)
Lincoln believed in innovation, and he admired the way patents encouraged invention. As he said in his Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions on February 11, 1859:
"The patent system... added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things."
About eight and a half minutes into his great Lincoln Bicentennial Day speech in Springfield, Illinois, Barack Obama included the latter part of this quote to show Lincoln's commitment to innovation, without making it clear that Lincoln was talking about the patent system.
Dissension about the patent system is yet another of the many storms confronting Obama as he takes office. Many frivolous Web-related patents were granted willy-nilly in recent years, inspiring some to fight for banning all software patents. There is danger that the baby may be thrown out with the bathwater.
Obama, who quoted Lincoln so eloquently, should defend the patent system that Lincon admired and used, by opposing the proposition that we do away with it almost entirely in relation to the two most important innovations of recent times: the digital computer and the World Wide Web.