Friday, February 13, 2009

The Fire of Genius

The patent system... added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.
Abraham Lincoln, Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions (Feb. 11, 1859)

This year, the focus of President’s Day falls especially brightly on Abraham Lincoln as we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth on February 12, 1809. By one reckoning, over 16,000 books have been written about him. Lincoln was indeed a great man and arguably our greatest president.

Great presidents are often defined by the challenges of their times. Theodore Roosevelt, himself a great president, was quoted as saying of Lincoln:

If there is not the war, you don't get the great general; if there is not a great occasion, you don't get a great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in a time of peace, no one would have known his name.

That may not do justice to Lincoln for clearly there is more than circumstances that define a great president. I think one of the defining characteristics is a deep intellectual curiosity coupled to an inclination towards practical action. Washington was a trained surveyor, a military leader, and a statesman. Jefferson was a true intellectual who read widely in virtually every field of knowledge. He loved novelty and invention and he was a man who was deeply engaged in the events of his day. Theodore Roosevelt was a writer and historian before he was President, but he also was a military commander, a cowboy, and an adventurer. Franklin Roosevelt invented many advances in the treatment of polio when he formed the Warm Springs Clinic in the 1920’s.

But back to Lincoln. He is the only President to hold a patent (Patent No. 6469 for the invention of a means to lift steamboats over shallow river snags). Lincoln was always curious about new technology. He studied virtually every new machine he came in contact with and was the first President to use the power of instant communications (the telegraph) to direct a military campaign. During the Civil War, he haunted the local telegraph office and eventually had a telegraph installed in the White House. U.S. News and World Report has an interesting article about Lincoln in the current issue that says that if Lincoln were alive today he would fight just as hard as Obama did to keep his Blackberry. The point is not that Lincoln or any other great president was a geek but rather that each had a wide and deep curiosity and intellect and embraced the new and the novel. They recognized the value of the “fire of genius”. That is surely part of what made them great. The advance of technology depends on our leaders as much as it does on great inventors and innovators.

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