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Why It Matters Whether Rutherford B. Hayes Liked Telephones

A presidential catfight over telephones, technology and how to reward innovation.

Who knew Rutherford B. Hayes could be so relevant to the debate over public support for today’s newest technologies more than a century after his death?


Yesterday, President Obama discussed his support for policies that encourage the development of clean energy, from solar and wind to electric cars and higher fuel standards. Aiming to ding his Republican rivals’ lack of support for the latest clean technology, the president leveled a rhetorical blow at a historical figure:

They might have even sided with one of my predecessors, President Rutherford B. Hayes, who reportedly said this about the telephone: ‘It’s a great invention but who would ever want to use one?’ I hear that quote kept him off Mt. Rushmore.

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It quickly became a teachable moment on a number of levels. New York magazine’s Dan Amira, seeking to check the President’s facts, made call to a the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center, and it turns out that Obama or (more likely) his speechwriters were a bit careless with the facts.

Hayes, who held office between 1877 and 1881, was actually quite the technologist of his times: Hayes was the first president to install a telephone in the White House (at a time when there were only about 190 numbers listed in the Washington, D.C. phone book) and the first to use a typewriter. At one point, he invited Thomas Edison to demonstrate the phonograph in the White House. Picture George W. Bush requesting a personal demonstration of the iPod from Steve Jobs.

When Hayes first encountered the television at a hotel in Providence, Rhode Island and spoke with its inventor, Alexander Graham Bell—Obama friending Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook— his reaction was precisely the opposite of disinterest, according to an account from the city’s newspaper:

The President listened carefully while a gradually increasing smile wreathed his lips, and wonder shone in his eyes more and more, until he took the little instrument from his ear, looked at it a moment in surprise, and remarked, “That is wonderful.”

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Which isn’t to say Hayes, who was 55 at the time, was entirely immune to the difficulties of late-in-life early adopters:

At the suggestion to him from Mr. Gower, that he should speak to Prof. Bell, the President said, “Please speak a little more slowly.” A few more messages passed, when the President again remarked, “That is wonderful,” saying he could understand some words very well, but could not catch sentences.

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No one is sure where Hayes acquired his reputation as a Luddite; the "who would ever want to use one?" quote can be found everywhere from the internet (where any ‘fact’ can be found) to the Encyclopeadia Britannica. Before Republicans seize an opportunity to take the reality-based president to task for his inaccuracy, another major source of this misinformation was a quip Ronald Reagan made in 1985.

But public support for innovation is important: Simply by adopting the latest technologies—like the federal government's commitment to buying clean cars for its various auto fleets—the government can create markets that reward innovation.

Of course, Hayes is known principally for coming to power after making a deal with Southern politicians to end the post-Civil War military occupation there—the “corrupt bargain”—and many of his other economic policies weren’t great (he used violence to break up a number of strikes). But at least when it comes to innovation, Hayes, who supported education subsidies for poor districts, had it right: Good things happen when there’s public support for education and new technology.

Image via Wikimedia

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