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Before 1929, Nobody Thought the President Needed a Telephone in his Office

Herbert Hoover got a phone in the Oval Office over fifty years after the White House first got a switchboard

Corbin Fleming plays with President Obama's desk phone in 2012. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

The White House first got a telephone in 1877. Fifty-two years later, somebody finally thought to put one in the Oval Office.

President Rutherford B. Hayes first arranged to have a telephone installed in the White House, writes Stacy Conradt for Mental Floss. Back then, the only alternative form of rapid communication was the telegram.  But it wasn’t until Herbert Hoover requested, just after taking office, that a line be put in on his desk in the Oval Office that the room that was intended to be the center of power had its own phone, writes History.com.

It was “a highly symbolic gesture,” writes historian Nathan Miller. “Previous executives thought it undignified to speak from the Oval Office on the telephone.” They rarely used the phone at all, he said.

Hoover’s telephone “made it clear that the new president intended to take command and control of the government; the lackadaisical Coolidge years were over,” he writes. It put communications power in the hands of the president in a new way—though it’s worth noting that he was dependent on the original White House switchboard, much as later presidents would be.

Previously, he was using a phone in the office foyer. “It took a while to get the line to Hoover’s desk working correctly and the president complained to aides when his son was unable to get through on the Oval Office phone from an outside line,” the website writes.

The president has had his own phone ever since. But the president didn’t have a private line until 1993, when President Bill Clinton “complained that anyone in the White House could listen in on his calls by picking up an extension and pressing a button,” writes The Week. He had a point: his private calls could be monitored.

But it wasn’t some kind of conspiracy, details a 1994 Wired article. No president before Clinton had ever requested a private line, wrote journalist Brock N. Meeks. “All Clinton had to do was request a private line—he did—and it was installed in a hour,” he wrote.

Like any large government institution, the White House has always had a patchy relationship with the technology of the day. The White House Historical Association reports that it didn’t have gas lighting until the 1850s, after many Americans, while the first typewriter arrived in 1880, ten years after the first commercial typewriter went into production.

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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