Technology & Weapons

Abraham Lincoln and Technology

Technology was a wartime boon and bane for Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Abraham Lincoln. “Crackpot inventors annoyed Lincoln regularly,” wrote historian Michael Burlingame. “One sought his assistance in persuading the War Department to use his ‘universal solvent,’ which could dissolve anything. After patiently listening to this gentlemen extol the virtues of his product, Lincoln deflated him with a simple question: ‘What do you propose to keep it in?’”1

Both Lincoln and Churchill were curious men. ”Lincoln was unusually inquisitive, eager to learn about a wide variety of subjects,” wrote biographer Burlingame. “On the circuit, he would quiz drives, blacksmiths, and others, pumping them for information. If he spied a new agricultural implement on the street, he would examine it carefully to determine its function and understand how it worked. Lincoln was teacher manqué, eager to share what he learned. One day in Clinton, he grew so excited when one of Euclid’s propositions suddenly became clear to him that he grabbed a hostler and explained the demonstration to him.”2 Charles A Tinker, a clerk in the telegraph office, in 1857 had explained the operation of the telegraph key to Lincoln. “Lincoln seemed greatly interested in this explanation, and asked pertinent questions showing an observing mind already well furnished with knowledge of collateral fact and natural phenomena; and that he comprehended quite readily the operation of the telegraph.”3 Lincoln scholar Andrew Delbanco noted: “Lincoln was adept at exploiting the new technologies of his own day (he was, for example, a careful manager of his own photographic portraits), and if the means for transmitting words was changing, so, he knew, was the audience who received them.”4

Lincoln aide John Hay, who was not a good marksman, wrote in his diary in August 1863: writes: “This evening and yesterday evening an hour was spent by the President in shooting with [Christopher] Spencer’s new repeating rifle. A wonderful gun, loading with absolutely contemptible simplicity and ease with seven balls & firing the whole readily & deliberately in less than half a minute. The President made some pretty good shots. Spencer, the inventor, a quiet little Yankee who sold himself in relentless slavery to his idea for six weary years before it was perfect, did some splendid shooting. My shooting was the most lamentably bad. My eyes are gradually failing. I can scarcely see the target two inches wide at thirty yards.” The presidential party had spectators:

An irrepressible patriot came up and talked about his son John who when lying on his belly on a hilltop at Gettysburg, feeling the shot fly over him like to lost his breath – felt himself puffing up like a toad – thought he would bust. Another seeing the gun recoil slightly said it wouldn’t do; too much powder; a good piece of audience [ordnance] should not rekyle; if it should rekyle a little forrid.’5

According to Spencer, inventor of the repeating rifle, on August 18, 1863 he gave a demonstration of his weapon. “On the way the President stopped in front of the War Department and sent [son] Robert to ask Mr. [Edwin M.] Stanton, the Secretary of War, to come with us. While we were waiting Mr. Lincoln told us some good stories, and, noticing that one of the pockets of his black alpaca coat was torn, he took a pin from his waistcoat and proceeded to mend it, saying, laughingly, ‘It seems to me that this does not look quite right for the Chief Magistrate of this mighty Republic.’ Robert reported that Mr. Stanton was too busy to accompany us. ‘Well,’ said the President, ‘they do pretty much as they have a mind to over there.’ The target was a board about 6 inches wide and 3 feet long, with a black spot painted at each end. The rifle contained six 50-calibre, rim-fire, copper cartridges. Mr. Lincoln’s first shot was to the left and 5 inches low, but the next shot hit the bull’s eye and the other five were placed close around it. “‘Now,’ said Mr. Lincoln, ‘we will see the inventor try it.’ The board was reversed and I did somewhat better than the President. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘you are younger than I am and have a better eye and steadier nerve.’”6

Later, aide John Hay observed: “The inventors were more a source of amusement than of annoyance. They were usually men of some originality of character, not infrequently carried to eccentricity. Lincoln had a quick comprehension of mechanical principles, and often detected a flaw in an invention which the contriver had overlooked. He would sometimes go out into the waste fields that then lay south of the Executive Mansion to test an experimental gun or torpedo. He used to quote with much merriment the solemn dictum of one rural inventor that ‘a gun ought not to rykle; if it reykled at all, it ought to rekyle a- little forrid.’ He was particularly interest in the first rude attempts at the afterwards famous mitrailleuses [machine guns]; on one occasion he worked one with his own hands at the Arsenal, and sent forth peals of Homeric laughter as the balls, which had not power to penetrate the target set up at a little distance, came bounding back among the shins of the bye-standers. He accompanied Colonel Hiram Berdan one day to the camp of his sharp-shooters and there practiced in the trenches his long-disused skill with the rifle. A few fortunate shots from his own gun, and his pleasure at the still better marksmanship of Berdan led to the arming of that admirable regiment with breech loaders.”7

Lincoln aide William O. Stoddard reviewed weapons that were pushed on the president. “Every proposed vender of condemned European firelocks was possessed by the idea that he might make a sale of them if could induce the President to overrule the decisions of the Bureau of Ordnance.” Stoddard later wrote: “On my table at one time were specimens of steel cuirasses, swords in several patterns, and various descriptions of cannon. As to the cuirasses, Mr. Lincoln decided not take them unless the inventor would put on one of them and let some riflemen practice on the thing to be sure that it was bulletproof. The trial was never made.”

Among the new patterns of guns in my room were several which seemed to promise good results, and I knew that Lincoln was taking an interest in them. I did not know how much until one evening when I was at work over a pile of letters. I was dimly aware that somebody was coming in; I looked up to exclaim, “Ah, Mr. President!” which was not my ordinary salutation.

“Stod,” he said, “they say you are a pretty good marksman. I want you to be here early tomorrow morning, say half-past six. We’ll go out to the Mall and try some of the guns. I can get a better idea of them that way.” A talk on guns following which was so interesting that it kept on until he was called to his late dinner in the other side of the house with a reminder from Mrs. Lincoln that he was to have distinguished company.

The Mall is the wide, grassy slope from the White House grounds to the Potomac, and at that time it was badly littered with rubbish. Out in the middle of it was a huge pile of old building lumber. This was just the thing on which to set up a target. I was at my room good and early, and I did not have to wait long before the President came in.

“Well,’ he remarked, ‘You didn’t keep me waiting. Now, you take that thing, and I’ll take this, and we’ll go right along.”

The weapon assigned me was a breechloader made over from an old Springfield smoothbore musket. The new arrangement was a kind of screw twist and fitted somewhat loosely. It carried the old cartridges, of which he brought a supply. His own gun was a well-made affair resembling the Spencer carbine; I think it was rifled. The Commander-in-Chief and the White House division of the Army of the Potomac march away to the Mall, discussing guns and war as they went.

“Mr. Lincoln,” I remarked, “General Ripley says that men enough can be killed with the old smoothbore and the old cartridges, a ball and three buckshot.” [General James W. Ripley, the army’s chief of ordnance, delayed the use of rifle muskets and repeating rifles by Union troops – much to the detriment of the Union war effort.]

“Just so!” he responded. “But our folks are not getting near enough to the enemy to do any good with them just now. I reckon we’ve got to get guns that will carry further.”

The entire field of breechloaders and muzzle loaders was run over, and I found that he was strongly in favor of the new movement in small arms. A hundred yards was paced off, and a target was set against the lumber. We took turns in firing, and I soon discovered two things. One was that the old Springfield barrel carried first-rate, and other was that Mr. Lincoln was anything but a crack shot. I afterwards learned from [U.S. Marshal Ward] Hill Lamon that he had never been.

It did not exactly irritate him, but he remarked, “Stod, I declare! You are beating me! I’ll take a good sight this time,” and down he went to level his piece across his knee.

At that point a Union army corporal arrived for the mall to demand that the commander-in-chief stop firing. The soldier turned quickly around when he recognized the president, muttering: “My God! I”ve been cussin’ Old Abe himself.’”8 (Lincoln’s preoccupation with weapons was detailed by Robert V. Bruce in Abraham Lincoln and the Tools of War.) The president wanted to be sure that Union soldiers had every possible technological advantage. Lincoln’s efforts toward military innovation had no clear organizational structure since the Army’s Ordnance Department was often obstructionist – particularly at the beginning of the war. For example, in August 1863, President Lincoln wrote Commissioner of Agriculture Isaac Newton: “About a year ago Capt. Isaac R. Diller came to me with a proposition in regard to a new compound of gunpowder, the ingredients and mode of compounding, being a secret. It promised important advantages, which would be very valuable, if the promise were made good. But he did not wish to give the government the secret; nor did the government wish to buy it, without a test of it’s value.” Lincoln then gave detailed instructions on how to proceed with Wetherill.”9 Charles M. Wetherill was a chemist in the new Agriculture Department; his boss Isaac Newton tried to dismiss him several months later because Wetherill was spending too much time on munitions testing.

Union officer Edward Davis Townsend recalled: “One day, I went to the Executive Office to see the President on some business. There were two other persons in the room. One was apparently a Western farmer, who had a sort of breech-loading rifle he had invented for cavalry service. Though he was not a mechanic, his gun showed much ingenuity and some originality. He was eager to exhibit it to the President, while the latter was anxious to converse with his other visitor. The President greeted me in his cheery manner, and said I had come just in time to examine the new invention, and advise the man, better than he could, what to do with it. I drew the inventor to the farther side of the room, and heard the explanation of his weapon, and all his story about it.”

It consisted of a common musket-barrel, bent in a curve so as to pass over the shoulder, and thus serve at once as a stock to the rifle and a sling to suspend it by. This part of the rifle was also a magazine which would carry some twelve or fifteen cartridges. A spiral spring was arranged inside, so that every time a cartridge slid into the chamber from the magazine, another was pressed into its place ready for the next loading. At the junction of the barrel with the magazine-stock were the lock and the chamber, which received one cartridge all ready for discharge. By pressing a small button, a spring was pushed back so that the stock part could be made to turn just far enough to admit of a cartridge sliding from the magazine into the chamber. The communication between the magazine and chamber was shut off when the stock returned to its place, and the spring connected with the button flew back and fastened it securely. Thus, the rifle hanging over the shoulder, muzzle down—the man’s arm passing through the curved stock—would be instantly loaded, with one hand, by pressing the button, turning the stock long enough for a cartridge to slide from the magazine to the chamber, and then letting it fly back to its place. By raising the piece with the arm on which it was suspended, and pressing it against a brace across the curved stock, which fitted the shoulder, aim could be taken and the trigger pulled. I hardly thought the invention would stand the test of a certain number of discharges, as our service arms have to do, and really did not feel willing to be the first to fire it off; but I listened with much interest to the owner, and then advised him to show it to the chief of ordnance, who was accustomed to examine such things, and who would tell him whether it would answer the purpose. The man bade the President good-day, and went out, so far well pleased. I never heard of his gun again, so it was not adopted.

After the inventor had gone, and the President had finished his conversation, in a recess by a window, with his other visitor, he related to us one of his characteristic stories. There was a gentleman traveling for his health, who was suffering greatly from nervousness and want of sleep. While. journeying in Egypt, he was terribly annoyed by the braying of a donkey, used in transporting his baggage, which was tied every night near his tent. At last the dragoman told the master of transportation that his donkey must be kept at a distance, where his noise would not disturb their employer. Whereupon the man proceeded to stop the braying by tying a string with a heavy stone attached to the donkey’s tail. The donkey immediately dropped his ears, hung his head, and remained quiet through the night. The next morning, when the stone was taken off, the donkey raised his head, shook his ears, and gave one good, long bray, like Baron Munchausen’s trumpet when the frozen tunes thawed out. I do not remember the application which Mr. Lincoln made of this story.10

“Mr. Lincoln himself had for years been decidedly interested in the science of aerostation,” wrote William O. Stoddard. “When the army began to employ balloons for military reconnoissances [sic], a host of ingenious fellows all over the country turned their attention to the art of aerial navigation, and, as a matter of course, every man of them was sure that he had the right machine.”11 Lincoln promoted the use of military balloons as presented to him by Professor Thaddeus Lowe. After Lowe had been rebuffed repeatedly, President Lincoln wrote General Winfield Scott: “This is my friend Professor Lowe, who is organizing an Aeronautics Corps for the Army, and is to be its Chief. I wish you would facilitate his work in every way, and give him a letter to Admiral [John Dahlgren], Commandant of the Navy Yard, and one to Captain [Montgomery] Meigs, with instructions for them to give him all the necessary things to equip his branch of the service on land and water.”12

An operator in the War Department’s telegraph office remembered that “some one proposed that we should make a test of signalling at night by means of a calcium light, which could be displayed and screened at will by the use of a button, operated by hand, in the same manner as a telegraph-key is manipulated; the alternate flashes of light, long or short, representing the dashes and dots of the Morse alphabet.” Using the Lincoln summer home in northeast Washington as one terminus and the Smithsonian Institute as the other, “We were able to send Morse signals to the roof of the Smithsonian and receive responses,” wrote David Homer Bates. “Professor Joseph Henry was present and witnessed our experiments. Mr. Lincoln was greatly interested in this exhibition and expressed the opinion that the signal system of both the army and navy could and would be improved so as to become of immense value to the Government.”13

Prime Minister Winston Churchill was no less interested in utilizing the best technology of warfare. “In World War I he was the father of the tank,” wrote Churchill biographer William Manchester. “As early as 1917 he conceived of vessels which would serve as landing craft for tanks. In the late 1930s he became interested in rockets and showed friends graphs illustrating their ballistic characteristics. And in the war against Hitler his genius was responsible for ‘Window,’ strips of tinfoil dropped by bombers to confuse enemy radar; ‘Pluto,’ a pipeline under the ocean; ‘Gee,’ a device for guiding pilots; and the artificial harbors used at Normandy.”14

There was much more structure behind Churchill’s efforts – which the prime minister insisted on keeping close to his office. Churchill was relentless in his pursuit of better military technology and its application to existing weapons like anti-aircraft guns. One of the key decisions Churchill made when he became prime minister was to retain the Major Miller Jefferis, who operated the Military Intelligence Research Office, later renamed MD1, nicknamed “Winston Churchill’s toyshop.” General Hastings Ismay wrote that “as soon as he became Prime Minister, he insisted on having a small experimental establishment of his own, which was to work in the closest touch with Professor [Frederick] Lindemann. Major Jefferis, whose inventive genius had come to Churchill’s notice early in the war, was placed in charge; and I was instructed to ‘take him under my protection,’ lest the Ordnance Board and the Ninistry of Supply, who were unlikely to approve of free lances, should make things difficult for them.”15

“I decided to keep under my own hand as Minister of Defence the experimental establishment formed by Major Jefferis,” wrote Churchill later. “I regard this officer as a singularly capable and forceful man, who should be brought forward to a higher position.”16 Churchill aide Joan Astley wrote of Jefferis: “Red of face, kind of heart, he was an inventive genius, his dreams and thoughts linked with all forms of infernal machine – and the bigger the bang, the louder his ready laugh.”17 Other military offices were not happy with the independence of the Macrae operation so Macrae arranged for his unit to be the only unit reporting directly to the Ministry of Defence.18

As with Lincoln’s technology experiments, not all of those conducted went according to plan. Stuart Macrae wrote of a demonstration at Chequers of the “Blacker Bombard.” Major Ralph Farrant “selected as his target [for the Blacker Bombard] a tree which seemed to us to be an awful long way off, made careful preparations, and then waited for the VIPS to come along – which they did after lunch. Behind the P.M. and the Prof. stalked [Charles] de Gaulle and [Jan] Smuts, who were very frequent visitors to Chequers at this time. There followed a raft of Service and civilian officials, all of high rank. It was most impressive and both Millis and I were shaken at the thought of the awful anti-climax there would be if Ralph missed the tree. Norman Angier had built the spigot mortar so everyone agreed it would be wise to let him check up on the siting. This he did, and somehow or other managed to fire the weapon whilst doing so and quite unexpectedly. They missile very nearly wiped out General de Gaulle and unkind people afterwards suggested that the P.M. had in some way bribed Norman to have a go at this. I am sure there was no truth in such an assertion. Anyhow the tree was hit, the demonstration was a roaring success, and it was most impressive to hear the P.M. say to Millis: ‘As Prime Minister I instruct you to proceed with all speed with the development of this excellent weapon. As First Lord of the Treasury, I authorise expenditure of £5,00 on this work to tide you over until proper financial arrangements are made.’”19

A more frequent advisor to Churchill was “Prof” Frederick Lindemann, a scientist whose ability to explain technical questions in layman’s terms was matched by his ability to alienate most layman other than the prime minister. During dinner with him at Chequers on September 1, 1940, Churchill declared: “This was a war of science, a war which could be] won with new weapons.”20 Taylor Downing wrote that Churchill’s toyshop “devised a magnetic naval limpet mine that was used in several commando raids, a sticky bomb that would attach to armour for five seconds before exploding, and a form of mortar that could fire a ring of bombs in a circular pattern against a U-Boat, known as a Hedgehog.21 John Colville observed: “Jefferis was often brought to the notice of the prime Minister, whose encouragement was solicited and readily given. He was among the Prof’s bluest-eyed boys.”22

“Alone among politicians [Churchill] valued science and technology at something approaching their true worth, at least in military application, and he had early been briefed in nuclear energy for the future,” wrote one of the scientists who worked as a governmental advisor. Historian David Dilks wrote that Churchill ‘maintained direct and short links to the latest developments of science. As in the field of military strategy, some of the projects the Prime Minister pursued came to nothing. Some wasted energy and time when both commodities were in short supply, but in varied instances of the first importance Churchill’s direct interest, springing from his wide-ranging curiosity, produced results which matter; by way of example, the techniques for bending the beams, upon which the German air force was relying for its night bombing of Britain.”23

For Further Reference

  1. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume II, p. 497.
  2. Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume I, p. 334.
  3. David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office, p. 5.
  4. Eric Foner, editor, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World, p. 207 (Andrew Delbanco, “Lincoln’s Sacramental Language”).
  5. Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger, editors, Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, pp. 75-76 (August 19, 1863).
  6. “Abraham Lincoln and the Repeating Rifle,” Scientific American, 1921, p. 102.
  7. Michael Burlingame, editor At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 134.
  8. William O. Stoddard, Lincoln’s Third Secretary, pp. 137-140.
  9. Roy P. Basler, editor, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (CWAL), Volume VI, pp. 367-368 (Letter from Abraham Lincoln to Isaac Newton, August 5, 1863).
  10. E. D. Townsend, Anecdotes of the Civil War, pp. 89-91.
  11. Michael Burlingame, editor, Inside the White House in War Times: Memoirs and Reports of Lincoln’s Secretary, p. 196 (Sketch 12).
  12. Charles M. Evans, The War of the Aeronauts: The History of Ballooning in the Civil War, pp. 86-87.
  13. David Homer Bates, Lincoln in the Telegraph Office: Recollections of the United States Military Telegraph Corps During the Civil War, pp. 264-265.
  14. William Manchester, The Last Lion: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, p. 13.
  15. Hastings Lionel Ismay, Memoirs of General Lord Ismay, p. 173.
  16. Joan Bright Astley, The Inner Circle: A View of War at the Top, p. 51.
  17. Joan Bright Astley, The Inner Circle: A View of War at the Top, p. 34.
  18. Stuart Macrae, Winston Churchill’s Toyshop, p. 135.
  19. Stuart Macrae, Winston Churchill’s Toyshop, pp. 85-86.
  20. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill Finest Hour, 1939-1941, p. 768.
  21. Taylor Downing, Churchill’s War Lab, p. 184.
  22. John Colville, Winston Churchill and His Inner Circle, p. 53.
  23. David Dilks, Churchill and Company, p. 45.
Posted in Essays