Quote: Reaction to the telephone (Rutherford B. Hayes 1983) (Ulysses S. Grant 1939)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Mar 16 18:58:18 UTC 2012

Last year I attempted to trace a quotation about the telephone that is
often attributed to Rutherford B. Hayes. Now this quotation is in the
news because it was used by President Obama in a speech. Because this
topic is currently a focus of interest I am sharing my results with
list members. Note that the domain of quotations is filled with
misattributions and altered phrases. Many fine writers and public
speakers make inadvertent errors.

The Washington Post "Fact Checker" has gathered information about the
quote credited to Rutherford B. Hayes about the telephone.

Washington Post
The Fact Checker: Obama’s whopper about Rutherford B. Hayes and the telephone
Posted by Glenn Kessler on March 16, 2012

[Begin excerpt of speech]
There always have been folks who are the naysayers and don't believe
in the future, and don't believe in trying to do things differently.
One of my predecessors, 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 because he’s looking
backwards.  …
--President Obama, remarks on energy, Largo, Maryland, March 15, 2012
[End excerpt]

The quotation credited to Rutherford has been in use since the 1980s.
However, early instances of the saying were attributed to Ulysses S.
Grant and not Rutherford B. Hayes.

Here are three key citations selected from many. More information will
be placed on the Quote Investigator website as I prepare it. Evidence
of the quotation before 1939 would be great. Evidence of an
attribution to Rutherford before 1982 would be intriguing. And, of
course, share what you think is interesting.

In 1939 Howard Pew, president of the Sun Oil Company, delivered a
speech at a meeting of the Congress of American Industry. Pew claimed
that several famous individuals had made short-sighted comments about
technology. One of his examples was a supposed remark by Ulysses S.
Grant that revealed a dramatic lack of foresight regarding the
potential of the telephone [UGHP]:

[Begin excerpt]
>From history, he recited: George Washington thought the first
demonstration of John Fitch's steamboat of too little significance to
justify his presence; President Ulysses S. Grant thought the telephone
was "very remarkable" but wondered "who in the world would ever want
to use one of them."
Napoleon couldn't "see the submarine." Daniel Webster thought frost on
the tracks would make it impossible to run trains.
[End excerpt]

In 1949 an anecdote about Ulysses S. Grant's reaction to the telephone
was printed in a Virginia newspaper. The quotation attributed to Grant
overlapped the version presented in 1939 immediately above [UGGP]:

[Begin excerpt]
Then there is the rather humorous episode in connection with the first
telephone placed on the White House desk. This was when Ulysses Grant
was president. After trial had convinced him that he could actually
talk through it and hear the answering voice from the other end, he
said: "Yes, it is all very remarkable: but who in the world would ever
want, to use one of them?"
[End excerpt]

By 1982 the quotation had been slightly altered and the words were now
attributed to Rutherford B. Hayes instead of Ulysses S. Grant. The
version of the anecdote given in "Future Mind" by Edward J. Lias
provided a setting and a date. But the year 1876 cannot be correct
because Hayes did not become President until 1877 [RHEL]:

[Begin excerpt]
When President Rutherford B. Hayes was handed the first telephone for
a trial conversation between Washington and Philadelphia in 1876, he
had difficulty thinking of anything to say. After several sentences he
disconnected the line and said, "That's an amazing invention, but who
would ever want to use one of them?"
[End excerpt]

[UGHP] 1939 December 7, Milwaukee Journal, You Can't Plan Progress,
Manufacturers Are Told (Associated Press), Page 9, Column 4 and 5,
Milwaukee. Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)

[UGGP] 1949 June 17, Free Lance-Star, As Seen By Others: Government
Tyranny by George Peck, Page 4, Column 2, Fredericksburg, Virginia.
(Google News Archive)

[RHEL] 1982, Future Mind: The Microcomputer - New Medium, New Mental
Environment by Edward J. Lias, Page 2, Little, Brown and Company,
Boston. (Verified on paper)


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