Since my hometown of Quincy, IL is named after a U.S. President — John Quincy Adams, our 6th President — I decided to use this week’s column to focus on Presidents who toiled as inventors. By the way, there are 12 states that contain a Quincy: CA, FL, IL, IN, KS, KY, MA, MI, MO, OH, PA and WA.

While Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s 3rd President, was the most accomplished inventor among all the U.S. Presidents, he did not hold a patent on any of his inventions. Only one President ever received a patent, and only one received a trademark. Who were they? Read on; the answers are at the end of the column.


Among Thomas Jefferson’s inventions were such devices as a macaroni machine that he invented in 1787, the swivel chair, the spherical sundial, the moldboard plow and the cipher wheel, which was an ingenious way to allow people to code and decode messages. Jefferson’s cipher wheel was used until 1802, and then it was “reinvented” just prior to World War I and used by the US army and other military services to send messages back and forth. Jefferson served as American minister to France in the 1780’s and, as a result of his travels throughout Europe, was able to adapt some of the things he saw in Europe to benefit Americans as well.

Jefferson felt that all people should have access to new technology and, since he didn’t want others to be deprived of the benefits that new inventions bring, he never applied for a patent on any of his inventions. He considered patents to be an unfair monopoly.

Several of Thomas Jefferson’s inventions are still in use today; they deal mainly with agricultural and mechanical products. He also was responsible for introducing French fries into the United States.

One of Jefferson’s most notable achievements was the founding of the University of Virginia, and this was one of only three achievements that he had listed on his tombstone.

Jefferson’s impact on the United States patent system can be seen today in the fact that each new patent application must meet three criteria before being issued a patent. A patent must be: New, not obvious, and useful. While Jefferson was the most prolific of any presidential inventor, he wasn’t the only President to have some success at inventing.

In two separate boating incidents, one as a teenager on the Mississippi River and one on the Great Lakes, President Lincoln got his boats stuck in shallow waters, known as “shoals.” These two experiences inspired Lincoln to invent a solution to help him navigate his boat through shallow waters.

A wooden model of this invention, which Lincoln made himself, is in the Smithsonian Institution. The invention was never sold to the public, though.

In 1858, Lincoln called the introduction of patent laws one of the three most important developments “in the world’s history,” along with the discovery of America and the perfection of printing.

During the Civil War, he took a personal interest in the development of new types of weapons: iron ships, the observation balloon, the breech-loading rifle and the machine gun.

President Washington was also a successful inventor, and in 1772 he received a trademark for his brand of flour.

Since there haven’t been very many Presidents who were considered inventors, I guess you could fish for additional Presidential inventions by insisting that President Nixon invented impeachment, and that President Clinton holds the current patent on it.

While Thomas Jefferson invented the most new products of all the Presidents, only one U.S. President has ever received a patent, and it wasn’t Jefferson. Do you know which President received a patent?

A. George Washington
B. Abraham Lincoln
C. Teddy Roosevelt
D. Harry Truman

ANSWER: President Lincoln was issued Patent # 6,469 for “A Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals” on May 22, 1849 while still a Congressman in Illinois. If you guessed George Washington, you were close; he is the only President to receive a trademark, which he received in 1772 for his flour.