Inventions of Former U.S. Presidents

Inventions of Former U.S. Presidents

by Heather R. Johnson, January 2016

We've had president authors, a president actor, and numerous president lawyers, but only a few president inventors. Beginning with our first leader, George Washington, the United States has elected a handful of presidents who tinkered with an invention or two.

Their inventions range from useful to whimsical, with only one official patent. On Presidents' Day, when we honor our country's great leaders, let's recognize their willingness to join a pre-21st century version of the Maker Movement.

Abraham Lincoln Inventions

The only U.S. president to hold a patent, Abraham Lincoln created an apparatus that would lift boats over shoals and sandbars. The Abraham Lincoln patent included two inflatable chambers on either side of a boat. When inflated, the chambers would lift the boat up, which would prevent damage to the vessel when traveling across shallow spots. Lincoln reportedly developed the apparatus after his own boats got stuck on sandbars one too many times. He never got to use it though, as the device was never produced.

George Washington's Intellectual Property

George Washington's farming innovations give new meaning to the phrase “intellectual property." To increase productivity on his real property, our inaugural president created a 15-sided barn that allowed for more efficient threshing of wheat. Washington also invented a drill plow, which he used for sowing grain.

Thomas Jefferson Innovations

What did Thomas Jefferson invent? Quite a few things, actually. Office workers everywhere still use a version of Thomas Jefferson's most notable invention—the swivel chair. His version featured a writing arm and a leg rest. Jefferson also teamed with his son-in-law to develop an iron plow that could dig deeper into the ground than the wooden plows of the era. He also came up with plans for a macaroni press.

One of his more useful designs (aside from the swivel chair) was a wheel cipher, composed of a series of wooden wheels that contained the letters of the alphabet arranged randomly around their edges. Used to encode and decode messages, the wheel cipher was later independently "reinvented" and used by the U.S. military from 1922 until early in WWII.

Other Famous Presidential Inventors

Our fourth president, James Madison, presumably liked to explore nature up close. He invented a walking stick with a microscope inside so that he could inspect whatever seemed interesting on the ground without having to kneel down. Unfortunately, the walking stick was too short for men over five feet tall.

Though not necessarily an invention, Herbert Hoover inspired Hooverball, a sport developed by then-White House physician Admiral T. Boone. The sport combines aspects of tennis and volleyball, where teams of two to four people take turns throwing a four- to six-pound ball over a net. It kept the president active, and could have been worthy of a trademark instead of a patent or copyright.

We can't put Theodore Roosevelt on the list of presidential inventions and inventors, but we can add him to the famous inspirations list. Theodore “Teddy" Roosevelt inspired a childhood classic—the teddy bear. Our 26th president gave toymaker Morris Michtom permission to use his name for the famous stuffed animal, which Michtom reportedly patterned after Clifford K. Berryman's “Teddy Bear" political cartoons.

While we can consider only one U.S. president to be a documented intellectual property owner, we give credit to all of the U.S. presidents who not only led our country, but also led the way in innovative design.