Update: Because this little adventure was so much fun, I turned it into a whole new project: Nate’s Team. Now you can join me and learn to do stuff like this too.
You guys are gonna love this story. It takes a few minutes to get to Lincoln, but it’s well worth the read.
Here’s how it all started…
I’ve been working nonstop for a while, so I wanted to take yesterday off. I decided to head out the door early in the morning and see where the day would take me. I left my phone at home because I wanted to go old-school, just the worn-out atlas in my car and no one able to bother me. I would later regret that decision.
By 7:00am I found myself in the little town of Delavan, Wisconsin, just wandering about. I passed by an old cemetery with some colorful graves – something I had never seen before. So I stopped to take a walk around, and realized that I had stumbled upon the circus graveyard, where a lot of P.T. Barnum’s circus folk were buried!
If you don’t know who P.T. Barnum is, this is from his Wikipedia article: “P.T. Barnum was an American showman, businessman, scam artist and entertainer, remembered for promoting celebrated hoaxes and for founding the circus that became the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.”
Barnum built his circus here in Delavan, and it became the wintering grounds for many circuses (circi, plural) over the years. Why you would winter in freezing cold Wisconsin is beyond me. But then again, Barnum was famous for saying “There’s a sucker born every minute,” but he never actually said it, so who knows what’s going on up here.
Anyway, I picked my way through the headstones, some of which were really, really old. One stone in particular had a really long inscription, listing all the accomplishments of its owner. Most of them I don’t remember, but this one caught my eye: “Bluffed P.T. and Honest Abe with a pair of deuces.” That was when I really, really wished I had my phone (and its camera).
I tried to think of who else this guy (Morty Smith, for what it’s worth – I assume that’s short for Mortimer) could have been referring to, but I don’t know anyone else in history called Honest Abe. I had never heard of a connection between Lincoln and Barnum, but they were around here in the early-to-mid 1800s, with Barnum up in Delavan, WI and Lincoln just down the road a bit in Springfield, IL.
And Springfield has the Lincoln Museum.
I jumped in the car, headed south, and made it to Springfield by lunchtime. After a quick bite, I hit the museum and started asking around about the connection between the two men. One of the Research Specialists was there, and I got the feeling that they don’t get too many walk-ins interested in obscure connections, because he let me into the back room where they keep all the old manuscripts and stuff (past all the signs clearly stating “Appointment Needed”).
He told me that the two men were indeed acquaintances, if not friends. Lincoln was known to attend the circus when it was in town, and the two men had been seen talking a few times. He didn’t know anything about a poker game, however, or Mr. Morty Smith. Perhaps that was Morty’s only claim to fame – bluffing the master bluffer and the future hero with a pair of deuces.
I asked if there was any record of Lincoln mentioning Barnum in any written correspondence, so Matt (the researcher) looked it up in the system and came back with one result: something that Lincoln wrote in the Springfield Gazette. Matt looked confused, and when I asked him why, he said that Springfield didn’t have a publication named that at the time; the main paper when Lincoln lived there was called The Springfield Spectator (or something close to that – I don’t quite remember).
He went to go pull it out for us to look at, and I’m not gonna lie, I was excited. I absolutely love old documents, and I could live in a library. But I had no idea how cool this paper was actually going to be.
Matt brought out three pieces of paper, each lying flat and next to each other on a tray with a clear plastic cover. He said that we were looking at the entire Springfield Gazette block, and each paper was printed on only one side. The printing was from 1845, so it was hard to make out a lot of it, but we could still read a fair amount. And get this: it wasn’t a newspaper! It was the visual appendix to a patent application.
Matt told me that Lincoln dissolved his law partnership with a guy named Stephen Logan in 1844, and he was elected to Congress in 1846. During the year in between, 1845, he tried his hand at a few different things, including law, writing, and a few patent applications, all of which were denied.
You’re not allowed to take pictures in the collections room (not that I had my phone anyway), but Matt said I could have a copy of the block cover – the reference piece that was scanned in when the block of documents was filed. It’s a low-res, bad copy, but at least he let me put it on my thumb drive and take it with me. You can check it out below (clicking on it will blow it up).
He said that he’d seen that picture before; it was one that Lincoln used a lot, and he could give me a (crappy again) copy of that one to take, too. Here it is:
We found the reference to Barnum right away, in a little article/story called “The Fisherman (A THRILLING INCIDENT).” The story was about the circus “with all its Wonders,” and the “marvels of Human Monstrosities” one could find there. That’s how he wrote, with all the old-time capitalization – it was awesome.
Barnum was mentioned as the owner of the circus, “a man of remarkable Wit and Personality,” whom Lincoln compared to “a Fisherman who can reel Folk in as though he had them on a Line.” The rest of the article covered other highlights of the circus and the cool things Lincoln saw there. It was mostly just a personal story about a fun day he had, as if he were telling other people about it.
And that’s where it started to get interesting.
The whole Springfield Gazette was one sheet of paper, and it was all about Lincoln. Only him. Other people only came into the document in conjunction with how he experienced life at that moment. If you look at the Gazette picture above, you can see his portrait in the upper left-hand corner. See how the column of text under him is cut off on the left side? Stupid scanned picture, I know, ugh. But just to the left of his picture, and above that column of text, is a little box. And in that box you see three things: his name, his address, and his profession (attorney).
The first column underneath his picture contains a bunch of short blurbs about what’s going on in his life at the moment – work he recently did, some books the family bought, and the new games his boys made up. In the next three columns he shares a quote he likes, two poems, and a short story about the Pilgrim Fathers. I don’t know where he got them, but they’re obviously copied from somewhere. In the last three columns he tells the story of his day at the circus and tiny little story about his current life on the prairie.
Put all that together on one page and tell me what it looks like to you. Profile picture. Personal information. Status updates. Copied and shared material. A few longer posts. Looks like something we see every day, doesn’t it?
The bottom of that page was labeled “Visual Appendix – Page 2 of 2.” It was the final page in the block. The bottom of the middle page was labeled “Patent Application – Page 1 of 2,” but I skipped over that one to read the first page of the block, which was much shorter. It was a simple form letter from the United States Patent Office, stating “Your patent application for ‘The Gazette’ has been reviewed and denied.” The official U.S. seal was stamped and pressed into the paper.
I looked back at the middle page, at the patent application itself. I wish I could just show you a picture, but here’s what I remember.
Lincoln was requesting a patent for “The Gazette,” a system to “keep People aware of Others in the Town.” He laid out a plan where every town would have its own Gazette, named after the town itself. He listed the Springfield Gazette as his Visual Appendix, an example of the system he was talking about. Lincoln was proposing that each town build a centrally located collection of documents where “every Man may have his own page, where he might discuss his Family, his Work, and his Various Endeavors.”
He went on to propose that “each Man may decide if he shall make his page Available to the entire Town, or only to those with whom he has established Family or Friendship.” Evidently there was to be someone overseeing this collection of documents, and he would somehow know which pages anyone could look at, and which ones only certain people could see (it wasn’t quite clear in the application). Lincoln stated that these documents could be updated “at any time deemed Fit or Necessary,” so that anyone in town could know what was going on in their friends’ lives “without being Present in Body.”
That was it. Pretty much just a simple one-page overview of how his system would work. After we read it, we both sat there quiet for a long time. It was so obvious what this was, guys.
A patent request for Facebook, filed by Abraham Lincoln in 1845.
I told Matt that I was going to write about this the second I got back home, and he said that he would be talking to his boss the next day to figure out how they wanted to announce this new discovery. I got home way late, and wrote for five hours during the night, trying to remember everything I could. And now we get to share this before the official announcement.
So that’s what I did on my day off: a random road trip, a circus graveyard, a poker game between a showman and a president, and the discovery that good ol’ Honest Abe was a man well ahead of his time.
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[Update: If you'd like to know why I wrote this post, you can find out here.]
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