Great Invention, But Who Would Ever Want to Use One?

Ulysses S. Grant? Rutherford B. Hayes? Howard Pew? George Peck? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A quotation about the telephone has been in the news recently because it was used in a speech by U.S. President Barack Obama. A widely-distributed anecdote asserted that Rutherford B. Hayes participated in a demonstration of the telephone when it was a new invention. But his response was short-sighted:

It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?

What do you think? Did Hayes say this?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to locate any compelling evidence that Hayes made that skeptical remark about the telephone. The earliest known citation connecting Hayes to the telephone anecdote appeared in a 1982 book titled “Future Mind” about computers. Details are given further below.

Oddly, in 1939 an almost identical anecdote was told about Ulysses S. Grant who preceded Hayes in the White House. This is the earliest instance of the story located by QI. Note that Grant left the White House in 1877, and Hayes left in 1881. So the speech described immediately below was made many years after either man was President.

In 1939 Howard Pew, president of the Sun Oil Company, delivered an address at a meeting of the Congress of American Industry. Pew claimed that several famous individuals had made misguided 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]:

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.

In 1949 the anecdote about Grant’s reaction to the telephone appeared in an article by a writer named George Peck that was printed in a Virginia newspaper. The quotation attributed to Grant overlapped the version presented in 1939 immediately above [UGGP]:

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?”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1950 the anecdote about Grant was printed in “The Rotarian” and George Peck received an acknowledgment for disseminating the tale [UGRT]:

Need an anecdote to clinch the point that even wise men can’t foretell the future? Here’s one from George Peck, executive editor of Partners, which concerns Ulysses S. Grant. The telephone had just been invented and an instrument was put on a White House desk. A trial convinced President Grant that he could talk through it to another person and hear the reply.

“Yes,” said the man who had led great armies to victory and was at the height of his reputation, “it is all very remarkable. But who in the world would ever want to use one of them?”

In 1974 the tale about Grant and his blinkered view of the telephone was printed in a book entitled “Must History Repeat Itself?” [UGAF]:

A similar episode occurred when General Grant, as President of the United States, was given the opportunity of talking over one of the first telephone lines. Having satisfied himself that the apparatus worked, he sat back and said : ‘Yes, it is truly remarkable; but who in the world would ever want to use one of them?’

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]:

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?”

In 1984 the first edition of a popular reference work titled “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation” was published. The authors Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky included a version of the quotation attributed to Hayes. When the volume was reviewed by the columnist Jack Smith in the Los Angeles Times he selected and reprinted the words credited to Hayes in his column. Hence, the quote achieved wider distribution [RHJS]:

Of the telephone: “That’s an amazing invention, but who would ever want to use one of them?”—Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United States, 1876.

Once again the date of 1876 was invoked, but Grant was President in 1876 and not Rutherford. All quotations in “The Experts Speak” have notes that attempt to provide supporting evidence. The note for the saying above stated that the information was submitted by the author of a 1983 book called “The Naked Computer: A Layperson’s Almanac of Computer Lore, Wizardry, Personalities, Memorabilia, World Records, Mind Blowers, and Tomfoolery” [RHCN]:

Rutherford B. Hayes, quoted from Jack B. Rochester and John Gantz, The Naked Computer (New York: William Morrow, 1983). Submitted by Jack B. Rochester.

In 1985 Ronald Reagan used the remark attributed to Hayes as part of a joke about his own longevity [RRHT]:

At a recent ceremony in which technology awards were given, Reagan recalled that President Rutherford B. Hayes once was “shown a recently invented device.”

“‘That’s an amazing invention,’ he said. ‘But who would ever want to use one of them?’ He was talking about a telephone. I thought at the time that he might be mistaken.”

In conclusion, QI believes that the attachment of the quotation to Hayes is not supported by credible evidence at this time. The attachment of the saying to Grant also appears to be unsupported. Indeed, QI has not yet located solid evidence connecting the quotation to any prominent individual.

[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)

[UGRT] 1950 February, The Rotarian, Volume 76, Number 2, Last Page Comment by Your Editors, Page 64, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books full view) link

[UGAF] 1974, “Must History Repeat Itself?” by Antony Fisher, Page 120, Published by Churchill Press Limited, London. (Verified on paper)

[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) (This citation was identified by the volunteer editors of WikiQuote who placed it on the webpage for Rutherford B. Hayes.)

[RHJS] 1984 October 2, Los Angeles Times, Section: Part V, Jack Smith, Page F1, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[RHCN] 1998, The Experts Speak (Expanded and Updated Edition: Based on 1984 edition) by Christopher Cerf and Victor S Navasky, Page 227, [Also see: Source Notes: Page 382], Villard Books, New York. (Verified on paper)

[RRHT] 1985 February 24, Reading Eagle, President offers no security advice by Helen Thomas [UPI White House Reporter], Page B-26, Column 2, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive)