Abraham Lincoln 2.0
April 15, 2009
I recently discovered a side of Abraham Lincoln I didn't know too much about: our sixteenth president was a nineteenth-century technophile. Not only is he the only president to this day to have a patented invention (come'on President Obama, your turn), he used then-new technology to help win the Civil War. Obama may be glued to his Blackberry, but Lincoln had a thing for the telegraph, sending out and receiving transmissions that author Tom Wheeler referred to as "T-Mails" in his engaging talk.
The audience at the National Postal Museum was intrigued by Wheeler's insights into Lincoln's grasp of new technology. Even when young Lincoln was a lawyer in Illinois, he had a hankering for what was new and supported the rights of the railroad to lay track. As president, he would walk the short distance from the White House to the War Department to both send and read telegrams. This became particularly important during the Civil War when the messages enabled Lincoln to become the first president in history to use technology that, in effect, placed him with his troops on the field.
Lincoln didn't keep a journal, and according to Wheeler, the T-mails bring us as close to Lincoln's personal correspondence as we'll ever get. In addition to "watching" the Civil War through telegrams, Lincoln was able to communicate with his wife Mary and son Tad when they traveled without him to New York City. Lincoln received a message from Mary asking him to wire the sum of fifty dollars. In the same T-mail, Tad asks about the goats he was keeping on the White House grounds. Though it was a trying time for the president as the war was raging, he replied, "the goats and father are well—especially the goats."
So, not only did I learn about the techno side of Abraham Lincoln, the T-mails also gave me a glimpse into his humanity, humor, and life outside the public eye.
To pay tribute to the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, we've created Artful Abe, an online scavenger hunt that takes you from outdoor sculptures of Abraham Lincoln around America to discover related artworks in the collection here at American Art. In addition, we've put together a podcast and published a book about the Patent Office Building or "Temple of Invention," as it was also known, now home to the American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery. The building not only held the model of Lincoln’s patented invention, but also was the site of Lincoln's second inaugural ball on March 6, 1865. Check out our exhibition, The Pleasure of Your Company Is Requested: President Lincoln's Inaugural Ball, for more details about that event. The celebrations were short lived, as the president was assassinated five weeks later, on April 15—144 years ago to the day.
For additional information on Lincoln at the Smithsonian, check out goSmithsonian.
- Abraham Lincoln, T-mails, Temple of Invention, Patents, American Art,
Smithsonian American Art Museum
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