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    Abraham Lincoln Would've Loved Drones

    Written by

    Brian Anderson

    Features Editor

    America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves. -Lincoln

    So it's Abraham Lincoln's birthday. Where to even start?  

    For all of Lincoln's complicated politics, the 16th president and former Illinois postman did pen the Emancipation Proclamation and generally kept the US from cleaving itself in half. He championed early communications relays--he sent well over 1,000 telegrams in his day, and even received the US's first transcontinental telegram--with such aplomb that he easily could be dubbed the first Great Communicator or, in the parlance of State of the Union commentary, the first "tech" president. He was also reportedly a fierce sportsman and wrestler: "Any of you want to try it," Honest Abe once provoked a mob that watched him lob a friendly opponent from the ring in a single swoop, "come on and whet your horns!"  This, of course, coming from a man who enjoyed little more than sitting on the porch, high as a Georgia pine, tickling the mouth harp

    Dude was a real silent storm. But if there's one overlooked, if downright grim facet to one of the most influential figures in American history, it's that Lincoln was obssessed with advancing the technology of war. Like, obsessed. He took war toys to entirely new levels. If there was a sliver of promise that a certain crank-machine gun model, say, could help raise the North, and all it stood for, above the South (which the so-called coffee-mill gun wound up doing, in no small way), Lincoln was all ears.  

    He sought out inventors--after testing killer apps and tools he'd offer critiques and encouragement until the designers got it right--so fervently that his government issued some 16,000 patents during the Civil War years. (Compare this to the South's paltry 266 patents issued in the same span.) It's that sort of gear saavy and whatever-it-takes brand of commander-in-chiefism that has me trying to imagine just how Lincoln would react to some of today's ubiquitous war tech if he were given the chance to size it all up (and potentially, to deploy) in the early 1860s. 

    Take drones. I can't help but suspect that Lincoln would be really, really into unmanned aerial systems. In fact, he was. Sort of. 

    It's no coincidence that if you trace back the use of semi-autonomous spyware during wartime you eventually end up at the American Civil War, when tethered blimps provided critical battlefield intel. These first-generation drones were gamechangers, and just one of a few Lincoln-approved specs laid out in a fascinating 1957 PopSci article fittingly titled "How Lincoln Modernized Warfare". As the story goes, an "air-minded" inventor from New Hampshire proposed to Lincoln in 1861 the idea of balloon surveillance. Lincoln loved the idea, and bought seven blimps--the US's first drone fleet. 

    I'm stretching the definition of "drone" here, of course. Lincoln's spy blimps were not unmanned. Lookouts equipped with collapsable telescopes would post up in the balloons, on alert for any encroaching enemies.

    But you get the idea. Battlefield spy blimps offered such a far-reaching gaze and advanced-warning potential that if there were only a way to do away with having to stick some poor sap up in a balloon to nowhere--to do away, in other words, with a human being explicitly "in" the loop--well, why wouldn't Lincoln fully drone on? If his taste for leading-edge war gear was any indicator, it's almost a fool's errand imagining him not jumping at the prospect of otherwise not having to put troops in harm's way in carrying out at least some of wartime's dull, dirty, and dangerous demands of war. 

    Whether Lincoln would set drones to kill American civilians is an entirely other thought exercise, one that (for now) I won't entertain beyond I don't think he would. Maybe John Wilkes Booth would be the exception. At the very least Lincoln, bloodied and laying reposed after taking a bullet point-blank, would've been the first to unleash the drone-hounds to sniff out his assassin. 

    Top: Lincoln and generals, Antitam battlefield, 1862 (via); Balloon image via PopSci

    Reach Brian at brian@motherboard.tv. @thebanderson