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Lincoln, Science Geek

President Barack Obama has made no secret of his admiration for Abraham Lincoln. Just as Obama depends upon his Blackberry to stay in touch with his world, Lincoln was enthralled by the power of the telegraph to unite a nation.

Last night, the Smithsonian's Museum of American History explored the topic of "Lincoln, the Smithsonian, and Science" as part of an exhibit marking the bicentennial of the birth of the 16th U.S. president—and the only one to receive a patent. The expert panel featured the authors of a new book, Mr. Lincoln's High Tech War; Marc Rothenberg, an authority on Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian and Lincoln's science adviser; and John Holdren, the current presidential science adviser.

"It would be wrong to consider him an inventor," explained the exhibit's curator, Harry Rubenstein, about Lincoln's 1849 patent for a method of lifting boats off sandbars and shoals (see below, image credit National Park Service.) "Rather, he's part of a long line of ordinary Americans … who shared a belief in the power and promise and hope of invention that was typical of that era."

Thomas Allen, who wrote High Tech War with his son, Roger McBride Allen, called Lincoln "certainly our most curious president" for his fascination with the telegraph's impact on both civilian and military life and with various technologies that affected his ability to govern the nation. They described, for example, how Lincoln directed Henry to find a substitute for the whale oil used by lighthouses that was no longer available because of the South's attacks on the country's whaling fleet. The solution was kerosene, McBride Allen explained, with gasoline as a byproduct. Allen noted that Henry, then the country's leading scientist, "admired Lincoln greatly."

Such admiration may come with the job. Holdren recalled how, more than 150 years later, his first meeting with then-Senator Obama was a 3-hour dinner held to discuss climate change. The event, said Holdren, was an example of the president's "remarkable ability to assemble a roundtable of people who he had reason to believe have some useful information to share on an important issue of the day … and then to summarize the discussion in a format that is much more than the sum of its parts."