Thursday, March 15, 2012

Barack Obama, Rutherford Hayes, and William Orton

I heard Barack Obama call out Rutherford B. Hayes (19th President of the United States) a few hours ago, pointing out that "one of my predecessors, President Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone: 'It’s a great invention but who would ever want to use one?' That's why he's not on Mt. Rushmore."

At least one historian, Nan Card, has come to Hayes' defense - saying there's no real evidence of Hayes' comment - and, you know what, even though I'm an Obama supporter, my allegiance to accurate history bids me to say Card is right.   There is no evidence that Hayes ever said that.

The timing is certainly right.   The telephone was invented in 1876, the year Hayes lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden.  Hayes became President anyway in 1877, due to the "Compromise of 1877," and served one term, until 1881.  But few people had much conception of what the telephone could do, so soon after its invention.   And the truth is that with so few telephones in anyone's hands, there was indeed not much that anyone could do then with a phone.

Certainly William Orton, President of Western Union Telegraph, was no fan.  As I detailed in my book, The Soft Edge, Orton was in 1881 asked for advice by his friend, another Republican, Chauncey Depew, who had been offered the opportunity to buy one sixth of all Bell Telephone stock into perpetuity for the sum of $10,000.  Now, ten thousand dollars was a lot more in 1881 than it is today, but it was still a pretty sweet deal.  Orton's advice, however: don't make the investment, the telephone will never be more than a "scientific toy".  Depew declined the offer.   Perhaps the Orton incident was the source of the Hayes anecdote.

And this was not the only poor moment for the hapless Depew.  He was thinking of going for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1888, which he likely would have been given (in an era before primaries), but was advised that incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland was unbeatable.  Republican Benjamin Harrison went on to become the next President, losing the popular vote to Cleveland in the election of 1888 but prevailing in the electoral college.

The truths of history are often more fascinating than fiction.  Obama's speech writers would do well to consult it a little more carefully.

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