Herbert Hoover: “He was a techie, a geek, a nerd. Where did he come from?”

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Hoover with a homemade ham radio, probably at Stanford’s Lou Henry Hoover House. (Photo: U.S. Dept. of Commerce)

Elena Danielson, director emerita of the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, is one of Stanford’s most charming and engaging speakers – not to mention a fount of knowledge on a dazzling range of topics. The former Fulbright scholar is the author of The Ethical Archivist (Society of American Archivists, 2010) – we’ve written about it here. Her Ethics of Access will be published this year with the same publisher. One of her many enthusiasms is Herbert Hoover (we’ve written about the president’s astonishing philanthropic efforts to save a starving Russia here.) Elena spoke last week for the Stanford Historical Society. And what better venue than the Hoover Institution’s Stauffer Auditorium?

An excerpt:

Herbert Hoover’s particular mentality, while unusual for an American politician, is something familiar to us at Stanford and perhaps easier to recognize in the 21st century than it was previously. He is part of a Stanford tradition that has been with us since the founding in 1891, and only become more clear over the decades. He loved science, technology, engineering, math, and machines, chemistry, trains, steamships, radio, television. He was also a collector, collecting ore samples and semi-precious stones all his life, and also collecting books and manuscripts. Collecting seems to go with this mind-set.

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Archivist extraordinaire. (Photo: Sunny Scott)

He was the kind of person who knew how to quickly take advantage of the new technology of the late 19th century. In 1898, he proposed to his beloved bride, recent Stanford graduate Miss Lou Henry, by telegram. Also fascinated by emerging technology, she immediately accepted by return cable. He traveled constantly by rail, steamship, ocean liner (an estimated hundred weeks of his life – or two full years – on ships). He went around the world at least four times prior to World War I, and crossed through war zones during the Great War.

During the belt tightening and labor shortages of the U.S. entry into World War I, he dismissed his chauffeur (normal for a man of his wealth to have), and delighted in driving his roadster a bit too fast for comfort. When he was elected president, before the inauguration, back then held in March, he got on a ship and took a four-week good will tour of Latin America. His train car or steamship cabin was always a mobile office. Going through his papers, I remember marveling at the number of telegrams he would shoot off every day to keep various business and philanthropic organizations mobilized, the way we send off emails. And he was never happier than when he was focusing his math skills on complex financial transactions with large numbers of zeros, the more complicated the better…He was different from Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Truman. You’d have to go back to Benjamin Franklin to find the same combination of love of science, love of foreign travel, and love for complex negotiations.

He was an early adopter. He had a ham radio in his campus home for Herbert Hoover Jr. He was the first person to broadcast on TV in 1927. He was the first president to broadcast a campaign speech on the radio, the first president to have his own telephone on his desk, the first person to use a teleprompter on national TV (1952). He thrived on using emerging technology. It was his strength, enabled him to solve problems, and, in some ways, it was also his weakness, he expected problems to have solutions. He was a techie, a geek, a nerd. Where did he come from?

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Stanford landmark

Then he took the technical skills he learned at Stanford, starting at age 22, to high-level, high-stakes ventures in Australia, China, and, what I consider the transformative period, in Tsarist Russia. This last is, in my opinion, one of the most significant and least researched episodes in his life. This technical career got him involved in Stanford campus politics, then some global politics and finally American politics, as he tried to apply engineering solutions to international and social problems, a technocrat in the good sense of the word, as a logical, fact-based problem-solver. Throughout this time, he remained deeply committed to helping the university that launched his career, and the career of his wife Lou Henry, his older brother Theodor Hoover, and his sons Herbert Hoover, Jr., and Allan Hoover, his closest friends such as Ray Lyman Wilbur. All Stanford grads, all techies. And we will see his two lasting monuments – not on Mount Rushmore, but two engineering marvels that both have strong connections with Stanford.

Hoover Dam was one of them. From Elena Danielson:

They excavated 3.7 million cubic yards of rock, poured 4.4 million cubic yards of concrete, built four tunnels through which they diverted one of the country’s greatest rivers, installed 45 million pounds of steel, imbedded 582 miles of one-inch cooling tubes, and built a 726 foot tall dam with a 2,000 megawatt power station. The electricity that was generated paid for the construction. Even as president, engineering was his great love.

And Stanford’s Hoover Tower is the other:

He planned the construction of Hoover Tower with instructions to make it as seismically sound as possible given the technology of 1939 with a steel I-beam skeleton and rebar reinforced concrete on a thick concrete pad. Here he stored the documentation he had collected from the turmoil of the Great War, the Russian Revolutions and subsequent political upheavals. The inspiration of those great collectors on the pioneer faculty John Casper Branner and Andrew D. White found tangible expression in the Tower. The Tower held up well in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that devastated much of the construction on campus. His intellectual interests and his engineering mind-set worked together.

You can hear the whole talk here

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Not a bad legacy. Ansel Adams’s 1941 photo of Hoover dam.


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