Rutherford B. Hayes – Early Adopter

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

Time once again for a history lesson. During a speech in Maryland President Obama compared Republican skepticism of alternative energy to President Rutherford B. Hayes’ dismissal of the telephone. In this anecdote, Hayes said, “It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?” President Reagan repeated the same anecdote in a speech before the National Technology Awards in 1985.

According to Nan Card, curator of manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Ohio, just the opposite is true. Card has heard the story before but has no idea where it started.Card paints an image of Hayes as a technology early adopter:

He had the first telephone in the White House. He also had the first typewriter in the White House. Thomas Edison came to the White House as well and displayed the phonograph. Photographing people who came to the White House and visited at dinners and receptions was also very important to him.

Hayes’ wife, “Lemonade Lucy,” is known for banning the serving of alcohol, including wine, at White House functions. This may help to explain Hayes’ interest in the latest geek toys.

But this is a twofer. Obama’s speech contains another opportunity for a history lesson. Obama compared the Republican Party to the “Flat Earth Society”: “If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail, they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society.”

Historians have long contended that the idea that most medieval Europeans were flat-earthers is a myth. From Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould’s 1995 book Dinosaur In a Haystack:

There never was a period of “flat earth darkness” among scholars (regardless of how many uneducated people may have conceptualized our planet both then and now). Greek knowledge of sphericity never faded, and all major medieval scholars accepted the earth’s roundness as an established fact of cosmology. Ferdinand and Isabella did refer Columbus’s plans .to a royal commission headed by Hernando de Talavera, Isabella’s confessor and, following defeat of the Moors, Archbishop of Granada. This commission, composed of both clerical and lay advisers, did meet, at Salamanca among other places. They did pose some sharp intellectual objections to Columbus, but all assumed the earth’s roundness.

That the earth was a sphere was known long before Columbus’s time. Around 240 BC, Eratosthenes, chief librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria, heard of a well at Syene (now Aswan) where the sunlight only struck the bottom of the well at noon on the summer solstice. Knowing the distance between Syene and Alexandria, and the sun’s angle at Alexandria at noon on the summer solstice, Eratosthenes was able to calculate the circumference of the earth.

H/T: TPM, WaPo, The Atlantic Wire, Politico, Dan Amira.

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