Commentary / Statesmen

Abraham Lincoln on “Discoveries and Inventions”

(This post is part of a series on the American System approach to mankind’s relationship to the environment. The other articles are FDR versus Today’s Environmentalism: Saving Mankind and Nature; Nuclear Energy & the Environment: Bring on Small Modular Reactors; and JFK’s Conservation Policy versus Today’s Environmentalism.)  

By Nancy Spannaus

Jan. 7, 2018—Our great statesman Abraham Lincoln made perfectly clear where he stood on the role of mankind in relation to his physical environment in a speech he gave several times (1858, 1859, and 1860) called “On Discoveries and Inventions.” Man is not like the beasts, he declared, which merely feed and dwell upon the Earth. Rather, man is a miner, who discovers hidden treasures and constantly improves his workmanship.  “All nature — the whole world, material, moral, and intellectual, — is a mine,” and it is “the destined work of Adam’s race to develop, by discoveries, inventions, and improvements, the hidden treasures of this mine.”

Abraham Lincoln (public domain)

Lincoln’s outlook is characteristic of the American System tradition, as it began to be developed 150 years before the establishment of the United States in the Massachusetts Bay colony. The great proponents of this tradition were not only political leaders, but often scientific pioneers as well, as the case of Benjamin Franklin so aptly demonstrates. Those who were not scientists and inventors themselves put a high premium on establishing the institutions and infrastructure (known then as internal improvements) which would promote science and the arts, for the ever-increasing prosperity of the population.

President Lincoln himself pursued this goal both by his major infrastructural achievement (the Transcontinental Railroad), and by the program for land-grant colleges which specialized in agriculture and the mechanical arts. The Land-Grant College Act of 1862 , sponsored by Lincoln ally Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill, provided for U.S. land grants to each state “not in rebellion” to devote to such education. The act spurred the creation of a system of public institutions which greatly expanded the education of engineers in the United States. The bill explicitly specified that “other scientific and classical studies” not be excluded, as well as that a course in military tactics be taught at the schools receiving government aid.

Many of the United States’ most illustrious educational institutions, including Cornell University and MIT, began as Land-Grant colleges. Dozens of schools were established, ultimately including a number of schools specifically dedicated to educating Blacks and Native Americans.

While Lincoln’s use of the Old Testament to discuss the history of the development of technology might be taken with a grain of salt, his advocacy of mankind’s mission to discover and develop nature was dead serious. Below you will find the bulk of the 1860 version of this often-ignored speech. Read it and reflect.

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Discoveries and Inventions, by Abraham Lincoln

All creation is a mine, and every man, a miner.

The whole earth, and all within it, upon it, and round about it, including himself, in his physical, moral, and intellectual nature, and his susceptibilities, are the infinitely various “leads” from which, man, from the first, was to dig out his destiny.

In the beginning, the mine was unopened, and the miner stood naked, and knowledgeless, upon it.

Fishes, birds, beasts, and creeping things, are not miners, but feeders and lodgers, merely. Beavers build houses; but they build them in nowise differently, or better now, than they did, five thousand years ago. Ants, and honey-bees, provide food for winter; but just in the same way they did, when Solomon referred the sluggard to them as patterns of prudence.

Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship. This improvement, he effects by Discoveries, and Inventions.

Clothing First

His first important discovery was the fact that he was naked; and his first invention was the fig-leaf-apron. This simple article — the apron — made of leaves, seems to have been the origin of clothing — the one thing for which nearly half of the toil and care of the human race has ever since been expended. The most important improvement ever made in connection with clothing, was the invention of spinning and weaving. The spinning jenny, and power-loom, invented in modern times, though great improvements, do not, as inventions, rank with the ancient arts of spinning and weaving. Spinning and weaving brought into the department of clothing such abundance and variety of material. Wool, the hair of several species of animals, hemp, flax, cotton, silk, and perhaps other articles, were all suited to it, affording garments not only adapted to wet and dry, heat and cold, but also susceptible of high degrees of ornamental finish. Exactly when, or where, spinning and weaving originated is not known. At the first interview of the Almighty with Adam and Eve, after the fall, He made “coats of skins, and clothed them” Gen: 3-21.

The Bible makes no other allusion to clothing, before the flood. Soon after the deluge Noah’s two sons covered him with a garment; but of what material the garment was made is not mentioned. Gen. 9-23.


A woman spinning in the Middle Ages

Abraham mentions “thread” in such connection as to indicate that spinning and weaving were in use in his day — Gen. 14.23 — and soon after, reference to the art is frequently made. “Linen breeches, [“] are mentioned, — Exod. 28.42 — and it is said “all the women that were wise hearted, did spin with their hands” (35-25) and, “all the women whose hearts stirred them up in wisdom, spun goat’s hair” (35-26). The work of the “weaver” is mentioned — (35-35). In the book of Job, a very old book, date not exactly known, the “weaver’s shuttle” is mentioned.

The above mention of “thread” by Abraham is the oldest recorded allusion to spinning and weaving; and it was made about two thousand years after the creation of man, and now, near four thousand years ago. Profane authors think these arts originated in Egypt; and this is not contradicted, or made improbable, by anything in the Bible; for the allusion of Abraham, mentioned, was not made until after he had sojourned in Egypt.

The Discovery of Iron

The discovery of the properties of iron, and the making of iron tools, must have been among the earliest of important discoveries and inventions. We can scarcely conceive the possibility of making much of anything else, without the use of iron tools. Indeed, an iron hammer must have been very much needed to make the first iron hammer with. A stone probably served as a substitute. How could the “gopher wood” for the Ark, have been gotten out without an axe? It seems to me an axe, or a miracle, was indispensable. Corresponding with the prime necessity for iron, we find at least one very early notice of it. Tubal-cain was “an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron[“] — Gen: 4-22. Tubal-cain was the seventh in decent from Adam; and his birth was about one thousand years before the flood. After the flood, frequent mention is made of iron, and instruments made of iron. Thus “instrument of iron” at Num: 35-16; “bed-stead of iron” at Deut. 3-11 — “the iron furnace [“] at 4-20 — and “iron tool” at 27-5. At 19-5 — very distinct mention of “the ax to cut down the tree” is made; and also at 8-9, the promised land is described as “a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills thou mayest dig brass.” From the somewhat frequent mention of brass in connection with iron, it is not improbable that brass — perhaps what we now call copper — was used by the ancients for some of the same purposes as iron.

Transportation — the removal of person, and goods — from place to place — would be an early object, if not a necessity, with man. By his natural powers of locomotion, and without much assistance from Discovery and invention, he could move himself about with considerable facility; and even, could carry small burthens with him. But very soon he would wish to lessen the labor, while he might, at the same time, extend, and expedite the business. For this object, wheel-carriages, and water-crafts — wagons and boats — are the most important inventions. The use of the wheel & axle, has been so long known, that it is difficult, without reflection, to estimate it at its true value.

The oldest recorded allusion to the wheel and axle is the mention of a “chariot” Gen: 41-43. This was in Egypt, upon the occasion of Joseph being made Governor by Pharaoh. It was about twenty-five hundred years after the creation of Adam. That the chariot then mentioned was a wheel-carriage drawn by animals, is sufficiently evidenced by the mention of chariot-wheels, at Exod. 14-25, and the mention of chariots in connection with horses, in the same chapter, verses 9 & 23. So much, at present, for land-transportation.

Roman chariot (wikimedia commons)

Now, as to transportation by water, I have concluded, without sufficient authority perhaps, to use the term “boat” as a general name for all water-craft. The boat is indispensable to navigation. It is not probable that the philosophical principle upon which the use of the boat primarily depends – to wit, the principle, that anything will float, which cannot sink without displacing more than it’s own weight of water — was known, or even thought of, before the first boats were made. The sight of a crow standing on a piece of drift-wood floating down the swollen current of a creek or river, might well enough suggest the specific idea to a savage, that he could himself get upon a log, or on two logs tied together, and somehow work his way to the opposite shore of the same stream. Such a suggestion, so taken, would be the birth of navigation; and such, not improbably, it really was. The leading idea was thus caught; and whatever came afterwards, were but improvements upon, and auxiliaries to, it.

As man is a land animal, it might be expected he would learn to travel by land somewhat earlier than he would by water. Still the crossing of streams, somewhat too deep for wading, would be an early necessity with him. If we pass by the Ark, which may be regarded as belonging rather to the miraculous, than to human invention the first notice we have of water-craft, is the mention of “ships” by Jacob — Gen: 49-13. It is not till we reach the book of Isaiah that we meet with the mention of “oars” and “sails.”


As man’s food — his first necessity — was to be derived from the vegetation of the earth, it was natural that his first care should be directed to the assistance of that vegetation. And accordingly we find that, even before the fall, the man was put into the garden of Eden “to dress it, and to keep it.” And when afterwards, in consequence of the first transgression, labor was imposed on the race, as a penalty — a curse — we find the first-born man — the first heir of the curse — was “a tiller of the ground.”

This was the beginning of agriculture; and although, both in point of time, and of importance, it stands at the head of all branches of human industry, it has derived less direct advantage from Discovery and Invention, than almost any other. The plow, of very early origin; and reaping, and threshing, machines, of modern invention are, at this day, the principle improvements in agriculture. And even the oldest of these, the plow, could not have been conceived of, until a precedent conception had been caught, and put into practice — I mean the conception, or idea, of substituting other forces in nature, for man’s own muscular power. These other forces, as now used, are principally, the strength of animals, and the power of the wind, of running streams, and of steam.

Climbing upon the back of an animal, and making it carry us, might not, occur very readily. I think the back of the camel would never have suggested it. It was, however, a matter of vast importance.

The earliest instance of it mentioned, is when “Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass,[“] Gen. 22-3 preparatory to sacrificing Isaac as a burnt-offering; but the allusion to the saddle indicates that riding had been in use some time; for it is quite probable they rode bare-backed awhile, at least, before they invented saddles.

The idea, being once conceived, of riding one species of animals, would soon be extended to others. Accordingly we find that when the servant of Abraham went in search of a wife for Isaac, he took ten camels with him; and, on his return trip, “Rebekah arose, and her damsels, and they rode upon the camels, and followed the man” Gen 24-61[.]

The horse, too, as a riding animal, is mentioned early. The Red-sea being safely passed, Moses and the children of Israel sang to the Lord “the horse, and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.” Exo. 15-1.

Seeing that animals could bear man upon their backs, it would soon occur that they could also bear other burthens. Accordingly we find that Joseph’s brethren, on their first visit to Egypt, “laded their asses with the corn, and departed thence” Gen. 42-26.

Also it would occur that animals could be made to draw burthens after them, as well as to bear them upon their backs; and hence plows and chariots came into use early enough to be often mentioned in the books of Moses — Deut. 22-10. Gen. 41-43. Gen. 46-29. Exo. 14-25[.]

Motive Power

Of all the forces of nature, I should think the wind contains the largest amount of motive power — that is, power to move things. Take any given space of the earth’s surface — for instance, Illinois –; and all the power exerted by all the men, and beasts, and running-water, and steam, over and upon it, shall not equal the one hundredth part of what is exerted by the blowing of the wind over and upon the same space. And yet it has not, so far in the world’s history, become proportionably valuable as a motive power. It is applied extensively, and advantageously, to sail-vessels in navigation. Add to this a few wind-mills, and pumps, and you have about all. That, as yet, no very successful mode of controlling, and directing the wind, has been discovered; and that, naturally, it moves by fits and starts — now so gently as to scarcely stir a leaf, and now so roughly as to level a forest — doubtless have been the insurmountable difficulties. As yet, the wind is an untamed, and unharnessed force; and quite possibly one of the greatest discoveries hereafter to be made, will be the taming, and harnessing of the wind. That the difficulties of controlling this power are very great is quite evident by the fact that they have already been perceived, and struggled with more than three thousand years; for that power was applied to sail-vessels, at least as early as the time of the prophet Isaiah.

Steamboat on the Ohio River.

In speaking of running streams, as a motive power, I mean it’s application to mills and other machinery by means of the “water wheel” — a thing now well known, and extensively used; but, of which, no mention is made in the bible, though it is thought to have been in use among the romans — (Am. Ency. tit—Mill) [.] The language of the Saviour “Two women shall be grinding at the mill &c” indicates that, even in the populous city of Jerusalem, at that day, mills were operated by hand — having, as yet had no other than human power applied to them.

The advantageous use of Steam-power is, unquestionably, a modern discovery.

And yet, as much as two thousand years ago the power of steam was not only observed, but an ingenious toy was actually made and put in motion by it, at Alexandria in Egypt.

What appears strange is, that neither the inventor of the toy, nor anyone else, for so long a time afterwards, should perceive that steam would move useful machinery as well as a toy.

What Improvement Has Wrought

We have all heard of Young America. He is the most current youth of the age. Some think him conceited, and arrogant; but has he not reason to entertain a rather extensive opinion of himself? Is he not the inventor and owner of the present, and sole hope of the future? Men, and things, everywhere, are ministering unto him. Look at his apparel, and you shall see cotton fabrics from Manchester and Lowell; flax-linen from Ireland; wool-cloth from [Spain;] silk from France; furs from the Arctic regions, with a buffalo-robe from the Rocky Mountains, as a general out-sider. At his table, besides plain bread and meat made at home, are sugar from Louisiana; coffee and fruits from the tropics; salt from Turk’s Island; fish from New-foundland; tea from China, and spices from the Indies. The whale of the Pacific furnishes his candle-light; he has a diamond-ring from Brazil; a gold-watch from California, and a Spanish cigar from Havana. He not only has a present supply of all these, and much more; but thousands of hands are engaged in producing fresh supplies, and other thousands, in bringing them to him. The iron horse is panting, and impatient, to carry him everywhere, in no time; and the lightening stands ready harnessed to take and bring his tidings in a trifle less than no time. He owns a large part of the world, by right of possessing it; and all the rest by right of wanting it, and intending to have it.

As Plato had for the immortality of the soul, so Young America has “a pleasing hope — a fond desire — a longing after” territory. He has a great passion — a perfect rage — for the “new”; particularly new men for office, and the new earth mentioned in the revelations, in which, being no more sea, there must be about three times as much land as in the present. He is a great friend of humanity; and his desire for land is not selfish, but merely an impulse to extend the area of freedom. He is very anxious to fight for the liberation of enslaved nations and colonies, provided, always, they have land, and have not any liking for his interference. As to those who have no land, and would be glad of help from any quarter, he considers they can afford to wait a few hundred years longer. In knowledge he is particularly rich. He knows all that can possibly be known; inclines to believe in spiritual rappings, and is the unquestioned inventor of “Manifest Destiny.” His horror is for all that is old, particularly “Old Fogy”; and if there be any thing old which he can endure, it is only old whiskey and old tobacco.


Benjamin Franklin epitomized the spirit of American invention (David Mart)

If the said Young America really is, as he claims to be, the owner of all present, it must be admitted that he has considerable advantage of Old Fogy. Take, for instance, the first of all fogies, father Adam. There he stood, a very perfect physical man, as poets and painters inform us; but he must have been very ignorant, and simple in his habits. He had had no sufficient time to learn much by observation; and he had no near neighbors to teach him anything. No part of his breakfast had been brought from the other side of the world; and it is quite probable, he had no conception of the world having any other side. In all of these things, it is very plain, he was no equal of Young America; the most that can be said is, that according to his chance he may have been quite as much of a man as his very self-complaisant descendant. Little as was what he knew, let the Youngster discard all he has learned from others, and then show, if he can, any advantage on his side. In the way of land, and livestock, Adam was quite in the ascendant. He had dominion over all the earth, and all the living things upon, and round about it. The land has been sadly divided out since; but never fret, Young America will re-annex it.

The great difference between Young American and Old Fogy, is the result of DiscoveriesInventions, and Improvements. These, in turn, are the result of observation, reflection and experiment. For instance, it is quite certain that ever since water has been boiled in covered vessels, men have seen the lids of the vessels rise and fall a little, with a sort of fluttering motion, by force of the steam; but so long as this was not specially observed, and reflected and experimented upon, it came to nothing. At length however, after many thousand years, some man observes this long-known effect of hot water lifting a pot-lid, and begins a train of reflection upon it. He says “Why, to be sure, the force that lifts the pot-lid, will lift anything else, which is no heavier than the pot-lid.” “And, as man has much hard lifting to do, cannot this hot-water power be made to help him?” He has become a little excited on the subject, and he fancies he hears a voice answering “Try me”   He does try it; and the observation, reflection, and trial gives to the world the control of that tremendous, and now well-known agent, called steam-power. This is not the actual history in detail, but the general principle.

But was this first inventor of the application of steam, wiser or more ingenious than those who had gone before him? Not at all. Had he not learned much of them, he never would have succeeded — probably, never would have thought of making the attempt. To be fruitful in invention, it is indispensable to have a habit of observation and reflection; and this habit, our steam friend acquired, no doubt, from those who, to him, were old fogies. But for the difference in habit of observation, why did Yankees, almost instantly, discover gold in California, which had been trodden upon, and over-looked by Indians and Mexican greasers, for centuries? Gold-mines are not the only mines overlooked in the same way. There are more mines above the Earth’s surface than below it.

All nature — the whole world, material, moral, and intellectual, — is a mine; and, in Adam’s day, it was a wholly unexplored mine. Now, it was the destined work of Adam’s race to develop, by discoveries, inventions, and improvements, the hidden treasures of this mine. But Adam had nothing to turn his attention to the work. If he should do anything in the way of invention, he had first to invent the art of invention — the instance at least, if not the habit of observation and reflection. As might be expected he seems not to have been a very observing man at first; for it appears he went about naked a considerable length of time, before he even noticed that obvious fact. But when he did observe it, the observation was not lost upon him; for it immediately led to the first of all inventions, of which we have any direct account — the fig-leaf apron. … (emphasis and subheads added)

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