American Presidents and Communication

When you think of presidents and communication history (which you do often if you’re like me) you most likely think of the great speeches. Washington’s Farewell Address, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech – these moments are what come to mind when we talk about presidencies.

But there is another side. Every President, just by dint of being in office, has overseen some remarkable inventions, and quite often they got to be the first to try those inventions out. Interestingly, many of these happened during the terms of some of our most unremarkable (or even outright detestable) presidents. We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the 20th century, but for President’s Day, let’s look back on some of the great moments in communication history that happened during the more obscure and even outlandishly-mustachioed presidencies of the 1800s.

Thoman Jefferson could be considered the grandfather of biometrics as the inventor of the pedometer.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Jefferson: Forging Communication History

So, this is a bit of a cheat, because Jefferson didn’t just oversee or coincide with science. The man was an inventor himself and an all-around polymath. One of his inventions was a pedometer (though he might have gotten the idea from Europe). Pedometers, of course, were among the first pieces of wearable technology and biometrics. Jefferson invented his to help with surveying, another one of his passions (because this dude knew how to party), but it was soon used by people to measure their steps when they went walking.

Another one of his inventions actually served to promote communication, but only for a select few. The Wheel Cipher (or Code Disk) was essentially an early enigma machine used to carry sensitive messages around during the Revolution. Only people with a wheel could decipher the message that was passed to them, so it appeared as gibberish to prying postmasters and interceptors of letters. You can even use one online here – it’s pretty neat.

Zachary Taylor and the Mystery of the Phone

Quick– name a fun fact about Zachary Taylor! If you said that he died from eating too many cherries, you named the only fun fact about him, and really, it isn’t that fun. That’s probably all most people know about the man who only served for one year. It’s fitting, then, that during his brief stint in office, an Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci began working on the telephone, also known as the talking telegraph. He wasn’t exactly very fast, though, first filing a caveat for it in 1871, and then lacking the money to renew it. Five years later, Alexander Graham bell beat Elisha Gray to to the patent office and is now widely known as the father of the telephone. Meucci might have started under a bad star when he began his work under maybe the most forgettable president in history.

James Buchanan and the Transatlantic Telegraph

James Buchanan was the worst. Recent political passions make us yell over the internet that one recent occupant or the other is the worst ever, but no one of late dithered while the nation slid toward the wrenching fire and steel of the Civil War. That makes it even stranger that a man who did so much to tear his own nation apart managed to preside over a seminal event in world history: that of the first transatlantic telegraph. Buchanan used the new invention to send a message to the Queen of England. This changed the world forever, bringing us closer and shrinking distances in ways we couldn’t previously imagine, making it one of the most important moments in communication. Though history is too polite to record it, we presume Buchanan misspelled “queen” or something, that oaf.

Grover Cleveland and Tesla

Nikola Tesla is having a popular resurgence, as people see him as being the epitome of scientific cool, as opposed to the conniving publicity-hound Edison. Grover Cleveland is having no such resurgence, but maybe he should. In addition to being the only President to serve non-consecutive terms, he won the popular vote three times, in 1884, 1888, and 1892 (in the middle one he lost the electoral college). He has been called “the most honest president ever,” and a man who relentlessly fought patronage and corruption, even as mayor of notoriously corrupt Buffalo and governor of comically corrupt New York.

It might be fitting, then, that Tesla invented his wireless radio during Cleveland’s first term. With its ability to transmit from ships, Tesla has a claim to being the real father of the radio, even more than Marconi. Of course, until recently, history ignored Tesla, as it did nearly everything else he did. The rock star punk icon Tesla might be part myth, but it is true that his genius was matched only by his inability to get people to recognize it.

That’s the way much of history, especially communication history, goes. People invent something but it isn’t the right time, or the idea hasn’t been taken far enough, and then others build on their work and it becomes great, so their statues adorn history. On this holiday weekend, as we honor our Presidents, especially the great ones, it is important to remember those still in the shadow a bit, without whom everything might have been different.


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