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Presidents of Purpose

February 20, 2012

Today, February 20, 2012, is Presidents Day in the United States. This is a formal holiday, scheduled as the third Monday of February, in honor of the first US president, George Washington, whose birthday on February 22 was formerly celebrated as a holiday. Although officially a holiday just for George Washington, this day has evolved to include Abraham Lincoln, who had a separate holiday on his birthday, February 12.

Now, as a matter of political correctness, if not national pride, it's considered that all US presidents are honored on this day. This approach has a definite advantage. You can imagine the possible proliferation of holidays, or at least the political wrangling, were the US to survive a few more centuries and some factions thought that particular presidents merited their own holidays. However, as a practical matter, holidays don't have as much of an impact as they did decades ago. Now, most employees have seen their forty hour working week morph into 24/7 professions.

US citizens are among the few who can boast a continuous succession of forty-four leaders, principally because the creators of the United States Constitution did a very nice job of designing a government. Although the US Constitution has been besieged by special interest groups (e.g., the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibited alcoholic beverages, later repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment), it's survived, and so has the US government.

Some individuals are skilled leaders, and some individuals are both skilled, and leaders. Four of the forty-four US presidents have had credentials in science, mathematics and engineering. This does not quite balance against the twenty-four of whom who were lawyers.[1] Nor does it compare favorably with Israel, which can boast of a bona fide Ph.D. chemist as its first president.

The first US president with a technical flair was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third US president. Jefferson was a prolific inventor, horticulturist, paleontologist, and a bibliophile. A variant of one of his inventions, a cryptographic device, was used by the United States Army as late as 1942 (see figure).

Figure caption

A cipher machine invented by Thomas Jefferson.

The disks are rotated to set the cipher key.

(NSA photograph, via Wikimedia Commons)

The US Library of Congress, partially destroyed in 1812, was replenished in 1815 by Jefferson's personal library of 6,487 books. Jefferson founded the University of Virginia near his home at Monticello, and among his many correspondents was the English chemist, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804).

James Garfield (1831-1881), the twentieth U.S. President discovered a novel proof of the Pythagorean theorem when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. The construction of his proof is shown in the figure, from which the obvious solution can be derived by equating the area of the trapezoid to that of the triangles.

US President James Garfield's proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

US President James Garfield's proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

The proof is made by equating the area of the trapezoid to the combined area of the triangles.

A high school student should be able to complete the proof when given this construction.

Inkscape illustration by the author)

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), the thirty-first U.S. President, best known as the president at the time of the Great Depression, was trained as a mining engineer. Hoover's wife was a geologist and Latin scholar, and the two Hoovers published the first English translation of "De Re Metallica", a book published in Latin in 1556.

"De Re Metallica" was the primary source of information about mining, mineralogy and metallurgy, well into the nineteenth century. Illustrations from the book appear in two of my previous articles (Polymer-Carbon Nanotube Composites, March 28, 2011 and Boron Nanoribbons, January 11, 2012).

The last technically-credentialed president was Jimmy Carter, 39th President of the United States from 1977 to 1981, whom I featured in a previous article (A Technologist in the White House, December 1, 2006). Carter received a Bachelor of Science degree from the United States Naval Academy, and he took graduate courses in nuclear physics and reactor technology at Union College in Schenectady, New York.

The purpose of this training was to prepare him for command of a nuclear submarine, but this career path was thwarted by the death of his father. At his father's death, Carter needed to take charge of the family business.

The reactor accident at Three Mile Island, March 28, 1979, happened during Carter's presidency, so his education may have helped in his decision process. This brings up the interesting point that we presently have non-technical people running a country with a much larger technology base than in 1979.

Although he was not officially a member of the presidential elite, probably because his advanced age during the early years of the United States prevented an active life, I must mention Benjamin Franklin. Franklin performed many fundamental experiments with electricity, and he invented the lightning rod and bifocals.

Walter Isaacson, who wrote biographies of Franklin, Einstein and, most recently, Steve Jobs, wrote that Franklin was "the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become."[3]


  1. List of United States Presidents by previous occupation (Wikipedia).
  2. Jefferson's Inventions, University of Virginia Web Site.
  3. Walter Isaacson, "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life," Simon & Schuster (New York, 2003), p. 492 (via Amazon).

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