Shelf Life

Abe Lincoln, early adopter

Kai Ryssdal Dec 1, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Dealing with office communications isn’t anything new, of course. It’s the electronic part that seems to have the lawyers stumped, as Lisa just told us. But it turns out that’s nothing new either. And we might be able to take some cues from a surprising source. Author Tom Wheeler says President Abraham Lincoln was the master of the t-mail. Tom, welcome to the program.

WHEELER: Kai, how are you?

RYSSDAL: I’m well, thanks. Help me out here. What are these things? T-mails? Mr. Lincoln’s t-mails. What’s that?

WHEELER: Well, you know, Abraham Lincoln was the first president with access to electronic communications that we take for granted today. And when I was looking at his hand-written copies of the telegrams he sent during the Civil War — one day at the National Archives — it suddenly dawned on me that he was doing with those electronic messages what we do with e-mails. And I turned to the archivist who was next to me and I said, “These are Mr. Lincoln’s t-mails.”

RYSSDAL: How did he use them? Did he use them to conduct military strategy and affairs of state?

WHEELER: It’s really interesting. Early in his presidency he barely used the telegraph at all. And then, in 1862 he had what I call an electronic breakout, when suddenly he turned to the telegraph and he was using it constantly. And what he did was, he used this new technology to do something that no leader in history had ever had the opportunity to do, and that was to reach out and be in almost real-time communication with his generals in the field.

RYSSDAL: Does this make — not to cast aspersions on the legacy of one of the great presidents — but does it make him the first micromanager?

WHEELER: Well, I think really what it does, Kai, is it establishes that what Abraham Lincoln was was the first modern manager. Grant and Lincoln worked together to build what is really the modern electronic leadership model of today. And that is they agreed upon a plan, Grant went out and implemented it, Lincoln watched from afar, and yet when necessary, he inserted himself.

RYSSDAL: You know, there’s a special sort of vocabulary and language that we use today in e-mails. But it’s developed over the past 20 years or so into this sort of shorthand that we get by with when we’re shooting off these quick messages. There were no rules, though, and no history to guide him.

WHEELER: He had a hierarchy of communications. And it was first a face-to-face meeting. Next a letter, which was in essence a brief where he wrote out a free-standing statement of where he was. And the bottom rung on his hierarchy of communications was the telegraph. Because he was using short messages, words mattered a lot.

RYSSDAL: Some of the best e-mails, though, that I’ve written — and maybe you too — are the ones you don’t send. The ones where you’re really angry and you’re, you know, at your most colorful. Did Lincoln sort of let ’em fly when he wrote ’em?

WHEELER: He did not restrain himself from writing down in long hand the text of a telegram that was blistering. But then he’d often turn it over and write on the back, Not Sent. You can see Lincoln’s thought process. You can look at the scratched out words and see him saying, “Nope, nope, this is not the right medium for that. I’ll save that to tell this person sometime later.

RYSSDAL: Tom Wheeler’s a managing director at Core Capital Partners. More importantly for our purposes, though, he’s an amateur historian — a pretty good one. His latest book is called “Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War.”

Tom, thanks a lot for your time.

WHEELER: Kai, thank you.

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