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Technology ‘firsts’ that made a president’s day

Feb 10, 201011 mins
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Some will be familiar to you presidential historians; others not so much

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 it.

(2010’s 25 Geekiest 25th Anniversaries)

So in honor of Monday’s celebration of Presidents Day, here’s a rundown of notable presidential first encounters with the leading technologies of their days:

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. Monroe was smitten. From Wikipedia:

After the President and his entourage had been welcomed aboard, Savannah departed under steam around 8 a.m. for Tybee Lighthouse. Monroe dined on board, expressing enthusiasm to the ship’s owner, Mr. Scarborough, over the prospect of an American vessel inaugurating the world’s first transatlantic steamship service. The President was also greatly impressed by Savannah’s machinery, and invited Scarborough to bring the ship to Washington after her transatlantic crossing so that Congress could inspect the vessel with a view to purchasing her for use as a cruiser against Cuban pirates.

Andrew Jackson was the first president to ride a train, doing so on a June 6, 1833 trip in a passenger coach of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad that traveled a mere 12 miles from Relay to Mt. Claire Depot, Maryland.

Martin Van Buren is said to have gotten the first presidential demonstration of the telegraph directly from Samuel F. B. Morse on Feb. 21, 1838. (There may be more than a few “is said to haves” in this post, since disputes over these claims are many.) The inauguration of James K. Polk was the first presidential swearing-in to be reported by telegraph.

John Quincy Adams is said to have been the first president to be photographed, April 13, 1843, although he was 14 years removed from the White House by that time. As for the first sitting president to be photographed, many online sources claim it was Polk, but the James K. Polk Ancestral Home Web site begs to differ:

James Polk

James K. Polk was not the first President to be photographed – William Henry Harrison gets that distinction – but Polk was a highly sought after subject for early photographers when portrait photography was really coming into its own. The time-conscious Polk probably liked the new invention as it did not require him to sit the many hours that portrait paintings did. Several very important “first” photographs were taken during Polk’s presidency. This photograph of Polk and his cabinet (minus Sec. 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.

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.

We can state with relative certainty that Abraham Lincoln is the only president to have been awarded a patent, although it happened well before he took office and had more momentous matters on his hands. says:

As a young man, Abraham Lincoln took a boatload of merchandise down the Mississippi River from New Salem to New Orleans. At one point the boat slid onto a dam and was set free only after heroic efforts. In later years, while traveling on the Great Lakes, Lincoln’s ship ran a foul of a sandbar. These two similar experiences led him to conceive his invention. Abraham Lincoln received Patent #6,469 for “A Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals” on May 22, 1849.

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. adds detail:

On this day in 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes has the White House’s first telephone installed in the mansion’s telegraph room. President Hayes embraced the new technology, though he rarely received phone calls. The White House phone number was “1.” Phone service throughout the country was in its infancy in 1877. It was not until a year later that the first telephone exchange was set up in Connecticut and it would be 50 more years until President Herbert Hoover had the first telephone line installed at the president’s desk in the Oval Office.

President Grover Cleveland answered the White House phone personally.

William McKinley reportedly was the first president to campaign via telephone, so let’s blame him for robo-calls.

Oddly enough, President Calvin Coolidge, who served from 1923 to 1929 is said to have refused to use the telephone while in office. He did, however, light the first national Christmas tree on the White House lawn in 1923, so we’ll presume he did not share President Benjamin Harrison’s distrust of electricity.

The year was 1891 and Benjamin Harrison was president when the White House was first wired for electricity. From The White House Historical Association Web site:

Few people at the time had enough faith in electric lighting to use it exclusively – its use was barely a decade old. The electrical work at the White House was planned as part of a well-funded project for wiring the State, War & Navy building next door. … Wires were buried in the plaster, with round switches installed in each room for turning the current on and off. President and Mrs. Harrison refused to operate the switches because they feared being shocked and left the operation of the electric lights to the domestic staff.

Four years later, Harrison’s successor and predecessor, Grover Cleveland, was the first president to place electric lights on a First Family Christmas tree.

Riding in an automobile was among the more disputed firsts encountered while researching this post, with competing camps torn between presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. We’ll turn this one over to Michael Bromley, author of “William Howard Taft and the First Motoring Presidency, 1909-1913,” even  though the motoring William Howard Taft is not his answer:

In November of 1899, William McKinley became the first president to ride in an automobile, a Locomobile steam carriage driven by its inventor, F.O. Stanley, at Washington, D.C. McKinley is known to have taken at least two more auto rides, one in Patterson, New Jersey, in April, 1900, and another in July of 1901 at his home at Canton, Ohio.

In August of 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt took the first public automobile ride by a president during a parade at Hartford, Connecticut, in a Columbia electric car.

Teddy Roosevelt was first to actually own a car … unless it was William H. Taft. There’s support aplenty on the Internet for both propositions.

(I’m guessing that President George W. Bush was first to call shotgun.)

Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to ride in an airplane and the first to be filmed while on the job.

The first president to speak over the radio was Warren G. Harding on June, 14, 1922. Here’s an account from

On this day in 1922, President Warren G. Harding, while addressing a crowd at the dedication of a memorial site for the composer of the “Star Spangled Banner,” Francis Scott Key, becomes the first president to have his voice transmitted by radio. The broadcast heralded a revolutionary shift in how presidents addressed the American public. It was not until three years later, however, that a president would deliver a radio-specific address. That honor went to President Calvin Coolidge.

The particulars of presidents first appearing on television seem to be more settled, in no small part because of the magnitude of the venues and events involved. From ipl2, which boasts of providing “information you can trust:”

The first president to appear on black and white television was Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 30, 1939 at the opening ceremonies for the World’s Fair. But, Harry S. Truman was the first president to give an address from the White House on October 5, 1947. The first president on color television was Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 6, 1955, when he appeared at his 40th class reunion at the U.S. military academy at West Point.

Harry Truman was the first president to take the plunge in a submarine and he also was first to use the White House bowling alley.


Dwight D. Eisenhower was first to ride in a helicopter, and, despite all the  hoopla surrounding President Barack Obama’s use of them, the first to read off a teleprompter (that’s another hotly disputed first, though). Eisenhower most assuredly authorized the creation of NASA.

John F. Kennedy was president when the first hotline was activated between the White House and Moscow, although the line may not have been as direct as many would imagine. 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.” Instead of relying on telegrammed letters that had to travel overseas, the new technology was a momentous step toward the very near future when American and Soviet leaders could simply pick up the phone and be instantly connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

An article in The New York Times described how the new system would work: Kennedy would relay a message to the Pentagon via phone, which would be immediately typed into a teletype machine by operators at the Pentagon, encrypted and fed into a transmitter. The message could reach the Kremlin within minutes, as opposed to hours. Although a far cry from the instantaneous communication made possible by today’s cell phones and email, the technology implemented in 1963 was considered revolutionary and much more reliable and less prone to interception than a regular trans-Atlantic phone call, which had to be bounced between several countries before it reached the Kremlin.

Richard M. Nixon was the first president to regret installing tape-recording equipment in the Oval Office. He also 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.

Ronad Reagan was the first president to wear contact lenses.

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. Carter also was the first president to publicly acknowledge a personal experience with an unidentified flying object.

On (Sept. 18, 1973) future President Jimmy Carter files a report with the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP), claiming he had seen an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) in October 1969:

He described waiting outside for a Lion’s Club Meeting in Leary, Georgia, to begin, at about 7:30 p.m., when he spotted what he called “the darndest thing I’ve ever seen” in the sky. Carter, as well as 10 to 12 other people who witnessed the same event, described the object as “very bright [with] changing colors and about the size of the moon.” Carter reported that “the object hovered about 30 degrees above the horizon and moved in toward the earth and away before disappearing into the distance.” He later told a reporter that, after the experience, he vowed never again to ridicule anyone who claimed to have seen a UFO.

George H. W. Bush was the first president to be accused of being so out of touch with mainstream Americans that he was wowed by a demonstration of an ordinary bar code scanner. According to, however, the characterization was a bum rap created by shoddy journalism.

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 (no, not with “that woman”).

George W. Bush was the first president to own an iPod and ride a Segway. He was also first to have his virtual likeness seen ducking shoes in an online video game.

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

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