Nothing changes our perspective like advancements in technology. Now, in the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine a time when a setting as influential as the White House didn’t even have electricity. Such a simple technology -- something we take for granted today but something new and wondrous as President Benjamin Harrison was ascending to office.
It was our 23rd president who brought that new-fangled technology to the White House, about halfway through his term and just ten years after electric lighting was introduced to the public.
Bringing electricity to the White House in 1891 was something of a daring move. Because the technology was so new, it wasn’t widely accepted as a true replacement for “old-fashioned” lamps. But Benjamin Harrison had money to spend -- he was the first president to get a $1 billion budget passed by Congress. Funding was available not only to electrify the White House but to install electrical wiring in the adjacent State, War & Navy building as well.
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The retrofit involved burying wires in the plaster walls, then installing round switches in each room. The work was done by Irwin H. “Ike” Hoover, a young employee at the equally young Edison General Electric Company. As it turned out, once he completed the wiring projects Ike stayed on as part of the White House staff – for 42 years.
Although Benjamin Harrison showed great leadership in bringing electricity to the White House, he and his wife were reportedly afraid of being electrocuted. According to stories, they reportedly wouldn’t touch the light switches, preferring to simply leave the lights on at night. However, historians suggest that this story is unlikely. Instead, the President and First Lady more likely left it to their domestic staff to turn the lights on and off.
Benjamin Harrison holds another presidential technology first, too. In 1889, a 36-second speech was recorded in his voice on a wax phonograph cylinder, making his the first presidential voice to be preserved for posterity.
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Since Harrison’s presidency, other Chief Executives have scored technology firsts. James Polk’s inauguration was the first to be reported live via telegraph. Rutherford B. Hayes installed the first telephone in the White House. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the phone number was 1.) But it took another half-century before the President’s desk in the Oval Office sported a phone, installed at Herbert Hoover’s request.
Bill Clinton was the first president to create an official White House website and use email, and President Obama transformed social media technology into a must-have campaigning tool during his first election.
It’s interesting to speculate how this progression of White House technology leadership might have been different had Benjamin Harrison not taken that first “radical” step back in 1891 to bring the latest innovation to the White House.
World renowned collector Raleigh DeGeer Amyx has acquired a remarkable number of scarce or rare pieces of official White House China. Mr. Amyx’s passion for American historical artifacts has been his sole focus for more than 35 years. Mr. Amyx's collection is the largest privately-owned collection of extremely high-quality, as well as the rarest, Official White House China and Presidential China in the world. If you would like to engage in a discussion with Mr. Amyx about White House China, please contact him through the button below.