Abraham Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, had recently returned from a visit to Niagara Falls. He proceeded to describe the majesty of the falls in glowing, heart-felt, awed terms. Nearly exhausted with this description, Herndon then asked Lincoln of his opinion of Niagara Falls, knowing Lincoln had seen them some years before. “What made the deepest impression on you when you stood in the presence of the great natural wonder?” he queried Lincoln, expecting something equally imagery-indulgent.
“The thing that struck me most forcibly when I saw the Falls,” Lincoln said, “was, where in the world did all that water come from?”
Others may have been satisfied with the “mere physical” of Niagara Falls, or like Herndon, enthralled by the beauty without thinking too much about the science, but Lincoln’s analytical mind took this much further. He thought of the phenomenon from multiple viewpoints, a characteristic that allowed him to make decisions with both deeper and broader understanding than most people. Examining his fragment gives us further insight into that mind.
“The geologist will demonstrate,” Lincoln writes, as he envisioned how the vast movement of water wears away the rock as it plunges over the Falls, not just of the bottom, but more importantly, from the top. He speculated that that geologist would “ascertain how fast it is wearing now,” and determine from this that the Earth was “at least fourteen thousand years old.” This estimate is close to the time of the last Ice Age, which is when the Falls were formed.
Lincoln also showed he had some grasp of natural hydrology cycles, speculating that a natural philosopher “of a slightly different turn,” would look at Niagara as the pouring of “all the surplus water which rains down on two or three hundred thousand square miles of the earth’s surface.” He was remarkably accurate in this estimate; today’s scientists say the Niagara River and Lake Erie combined drain a watershed of 265,000 square miles. This same natural philosopher, according to Lincoln, might estimate “that five hundred thousand [to]ns of water, falls with its full weight, a distance of a hundred feet each minute—thus exerting a force equal to the lifting of the same weight, through the same space, in the same time.”
This is rather scientific stuff for a frontier lawyer with little formal education. Lincoln is writing this as he made his way back by steamer home from the East, so he would seem to be recalling all this from memory. But he did not stop there. Lincoln elaborates on this hydrology cycle by pulling in the role of the sun, which through the process of evaporation the water is “constantly lifted up.” He contemplates that if enough water is raised from the watershed to feed the Falls, this natural philosopher would be “overwhelmed in the contemplation of the vast power the sun is constantly exerting in quiet, noiseless operation of lifting water up to be rained down again.” This sounds like a science geek talking, not a future president. He would incorporate this view of solar power (as well as energy from the wind) in his later Discoveries and Inventions lecture.
Lincoln thus shows he is multidimensional in his thinking. While Herndon was enthralled by the beauty and power of the Falls, Lincoln saw the Falls as both beautiful and a learning experience. He contemplated not only its charm and power to excite emotion, but also its hydrology, geology, and natural science aspects. Keeping in mind that the Falls we see today are significantly lessened since the 1895 diversion of water into tunnels feeding the new hydroelectric plant, the site Lincoln saw must have been awe-inspiring indeed.
[Adapted from an article entitled “Abraham Lincoln – The Majesty and the Math of Niagara Falls” in the fall 2015 issue of The Lincolnian.]
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.