Tech 'firsts' that made a President's day

Commanders in cutting edge

From the first presidential steamboat ride to the introduction of electricity in the White House to Obama's famous BlackBerry, our nation's commanders in chief have always enjoyed the privilege of being exposed to technology's cutting edge -- even if they haven't always embraced the opportunities. So in honor of Monday's celebration of Presidents' Day, here's a look at some of the more notable – and controversial -- presidential first encounters with the leading technologies of their days. (Expanded from version published on Buzzblog Feb. 10, 2010.)

Monroe's head of steam

On May 11, 1819, James Monroe became the first president to ride on a steamboat -- actually a hybrid sailing ship/sidewheel steamer named Savannah that would become the first such vessel to cross the Atlantic.

AND: Monroe reportedly saw in the vessel a possible role in combating pirates.

Telegraphing the future

Martin Van Buren received the first presidential demonstration of the telegraph directly from Samuel F. B. Morse on Feb. 21, 1838.

AND: The inauguration of James K. Polk was the first presidential swearing-in to be reported by telegraph.

Smile, Mr. President

John Quincy Adams is said to have been the first president to be photographed, April 13, 1843.

BUT: Adams was 14 years removed from the White House by that time.

As for a sitting president

Many online sources claim it was Polk, but the James K. Polk Ancestral Home Web site begs to differ: "… Polk was not the first President to be photographed - William Henry Harrison gets that distinction. … (However) this photograph of Polk and his cabinet (minus Secretary of State James Buchanan) is not only the first photo of a President and his cabinet, but it is also the first interior photograph of the White House."

BUT: Harrison's successor, President John Tyler, also receives mentions for having had this photographic distinction, so your guess is as good as the Internet's.

Lincoln had a patent, honest

Although it happened well before he took office, May 22, 1849, Abraham Lincoln is the only president to have been awarded a patent: No. 6,469 for "A Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals."

AND: No one ever accused Honest Abe of being a troll.

Phone number was simply 1

On May 10, 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes welcomed the first telephone into the White House and spoke via the newfangled device to Alexander Graham Bell himself, who was calling from only 13 miles away.

BUT: It would be another 50 years until President Herbert Hoover had the first telephone line installed in the Oval Office.

Let there be electric light

The year was 1891 and Benjamin Harrison was president when the White House was first wired for electricity, although it is said that neither the president nor first lady would go near a switch for fear of being shocked.

AND: Four years later, Grover Cleveland would be the first president to place electric lights on a First Family Christmas tree.

First car ride? … Depends

Riding in an automobile was among the more disputed firsts encountered while researching this project, with competing camps torn between presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt (pictured). In August 1902, Roosevelt supposedly took the first public automobile ride by a president during a parade in Hartford, Conn.

BUT: Teddy Roosevelt was definitely first to actually own a car ... unless it was Taft. There's support on the Internet for both.

First flight, right?

Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to fly in an airplane when on Oct. 11, 1910, Arch Hoxsey, a member of the Wright brothers' exhibition team, had him off the ground for about four minutes.

BUT: It would be 1943 before a sitting president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, took that risk.

As for the radio

The first president to speak over the radio was Warren G. Harding on June, 14, 1922, when he spoke at the dedication of a memorial for Francis Scott Key.

AND: Calvin Coolidge delivered the first State of the Union Address over radio in 1923.

Television? Now we're talking.

It was at the opening ceremonies for the New York World's fair on April 30, 1939. From Wikipedia: "President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave the opening day address, and as a reflection of the wide range of technological innovation on parade at the fair, his speech was not only broadcast over the various radio networks but also was televised. NBC used the event to inaugurate regularly scheduled television broadcasts in New York City over their station W2XBS (now WNBC). An estimated 1,000 people viewed the Roosevelt telecast from about 200 television sets scattered throughout the New York area."

AND: Harry Truman was first president to give a televised address from the White House, Oct. 5, 1947.

Ike liked the helicopter

On July 12, 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first sitting president to fly in a helicopter. Despite all the hoopla surrounding Barack Obama's use of them, Ike was also the first to read off a teleprompter (that's another hotly disputed first, though).

AND: There's no doubt Eisenhower authorized the creation of NASA.

"Get me the Kremlin"

John F. Kennedy was president when the first hotline was activated between the White House and Moscow. From "On August 30, the White House issued a statement that the new hotline would 'help reduce the risk of war occurring by accident or miscalculation.' "

BUT: It was not instantaneous; messages took several minutes to be communicated, encrypted and conveyed.

Now that's long distance

Richard M. Nixon conducted the first interplanetary conversation from the White House when on July 21, 1969 he spoke to astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin during their historic moon landing.

AND: Nixon was the first president to regret installing tape-recording equipment in the Oval Office

Carter's green side

In addition to being the first president born in a hospital, Jimmy Carter was responsible for installing solar-energy panels on the White House roof in 1979.

AND: He was the first president to publicly acknowledge a personal experience with a UFO.

Clinton and the Internet

Bill Clinton was the first president to have a White House Web site, send an e-mail via the Internet and participate in an online chat.

BUT: No, it was not with "that woman."

Didn't help sell Segways

George W. Bush was the first president to own an iPod, ride a Segway and take a tumble off of one.

AND: He was first to have his virtual likeness seen ducking shoes in an online video game.

The BlackBerry president

And, finally, although Barack Obama may be the first president to owe his very election to the Internet, he forever will be known for his fierce loyalty toward/addiction to his BlackBerry.

AND: He also named the nation's first chief technology officer.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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