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.

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