If Abraham Lincoln were alive today, he would fight just as hard to keep his BlackBerry as President Barack Obama did.
Despite his popular image as a log-splitting bumpkin and small-time country lawyer, Lincoln had an avid interest in cutting-edge technology. As an attorney, he represented railroads. During the Civil War, he haunted the telegraph office (which provided the instant-messaging of its day) for the latest news from the front and was actively involved in directing troops. He encouraged weapons development and even tested some new rifles himself on the White House lawn. He is the only U.S. president to hold a patent (No. 6469, granted May 22, 1849). It was for a device to lift riverboats over shoals. Jason Emerson, author of Lincoln the Inventor, notes that the 16th president was a product of an American age of innovation, invention and expansion, was intensely inquisitive, and possessed a mechanical mind and a need to know how things work. "He never came across a machine or invention or scientific idea that he did not stop to investigate, both physically and mentally," Emerson says. "He not only created his own invention but had ideas for other inventions, such as an agricultural steam plow and a naval steam ram, [and] was fascinated by patent cases as an attorney and also by new innovations during the Civil War."
It is interesting to observe how Europe’s greatest revolutionary, Karl Marx (1818-1883), thought about China’s greatest revolution in the nineteenth century, the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). We might imagine that this relentless advocate for underclass interests might have cheered for the poor peasants of the Taiping Heavenly Army. But this was not the case. Marx wrote about the Taiping Rebellion several times in the New York Daily Tribune and other newspapers, and his analysis and his sympathies are fascinating. His articles are as close to blog postings as one could get in the middle of the nineteenth century; they are topical, opinionated, and pretty revealing about his underlying assumptions.
The Taiping rebellion was enormous in every way: perhaps 20 million deaths, armies approaching a million soldiers, sustained Taiping control of large swatches of Chinese territory and cities, and an extended time duration of fighting (about fifteen years). The American civil war took place during roughly the same time period; and the Taiping rebellion was many times more destructive. It is a truly fascinating period of world history, and one that had important consequences in the twentieth century. (Mao and the Chinese Communists largely represented the Taiping rebellion as a proto-communist uprising.) So how did Marx respond to this social catastrophe? In a thumbnail — his observations show a remarkable blindness to a contemporary historical event that seems tailor-made for the framework of his own theories of history and underclass politics.