From A-Bombs to Drones: Presidential Tech of the 20th Century and Beyond

From A-Bombs to Drones: Presidential Tech of the 20th Century and Beyond

Summary: To celebrate President's Day, we look back at some of the technology that defined each of the U.S. presidents from the mid-20th Century, where the Tech Revolution began.

TOPICS: Government US

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  • Tech, tech, boom: The revolution begins

    From atom bombs and space rockets to drones and tape recorders, every U.S. president from the post-World War II era had some piece of technology or item that helped defined their time in the Oval Office.

    To celebrate President's Day in the U.S., we've collected the past dozen American heads of state and picked out the item, tech, gadget (or weapon) that defined their reign as the commander-in-chief.

    Image: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

  • Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Manhattan Project

    While it was his successor, Harry S. Truman, that actually gave the orders to deliver the only nuclear weapons ever used in combat, it was Roosevelt who ordered the beginning of the Manhattan Project. The project would bring together some of the finest minds in nuclear physics research to build the first atomic bomb, which would be tested extensively and used on Japan, twice, that would end the second largest war in modern history.

    In spite of the painful ending to the war, the research conducted by the world-leading experts led to a massive push in nuclear medicine and power, which ultimately helped form the nuclear power networks we have today. 

    Image: Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army

Topic: Government US


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer.

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  • My fellow Michigander never seems to get much respect from the SNL crowd

    so I will try to help his reputation out.

    Gerald R. Ford's presidency spanned only three years: 1974 thru 1977. But during that time several notable technological events occurred.

    The first set of hobby computers began to appear and in 1975 a small tech company was created by two individuals (Bill Gates and Paul Allen) which, years later, would go on to employee "a few more individuals" living in the Great State of Washington. (Interestingly, Microsoft still employees a few notable persons although, rumor has it, some of them may lack a certain passion for history.)

    Also, during his Presidency, another tech company was formed in 1976 by three other individuals which some of us are also familiar with: Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne. Their company would go on to earn a few accolades for themselves (but that story is for another time and place.)

    I think it might be safe to state that Gerald Ford's Presidency could be associated with the dawn of the PC Age in America. At least I would like to associate that time when he was President with that form of technological achievement rather than with a firearm.

    And, although the history of the M1911 pistol is fascinating in itself, I would tend to think that this type of technology (firearms) would be more closely associated with another Head of State that lived and died during Mr. Ford's stay in the White House.

    That person would be Mao Zedong, who passed away on September 9, 1976. Mao would famously associate himself with firearms with these historical quotes: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." and "War can only be abolished through war, and in order to get rid of the gun it is necessary to take up the gun." I suspect Mao would have appreciated the M1911 pistol.

    It could also be noted that the OPEC Oil embargo (1973 - 1974) generated a few technological initiatives during the Ford Presidency. The Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the 55 mph highway speed limits were enacted in an attempt to better managed that natural resource that impacts so many of the nations technologies. And, the beginnings of developing alternate energy sources occurred under his leadership.
    • You forget about the Mark 8?


      And the first programmable computer was the Z1, in Berlin (1936-1938)
      • I didn't forget about those computers (and many more), Jesse.

        I lumped the Mark-8 in the "hobby computer" category that I alluded to while the Z1 really wasn't intended as a "personal computer".

        IMO, the creation of Microsoft and Apple heralded the end of the "hobby computer" era and ushered in the "PC (personal computer) Age.
    • Indeed

      I don't think I appreciated him nearly enough when he was President (but I grew up in a Democratic household), but he's grown on me ever since. Richard Nixon chose his successor well (though that was not his intent) and Carl Albert and Mike Mansfield did well to recommend him.
      John L. Ries
      • I must admit that I was one of those who disagreed with his Nixon pardon.

        But then, I was much, much younger and lacked historical perspective. I can now agree with that decision as being in the best interests of the country.

        BTW, Wikipedia has a nice summary of that incident. It states that G. Ford suspected that this action was tempting political suicide and that, years later, Mr. Ford opined that the pardon of Nixon probably was the main cause for his lost to Jimmy Carter.

        Indeed, that article goes on to state (and the following is something I was unaware of) that, “In 2001, the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation awarded the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award to Ford for his pardon of Nixon. In presenting the award to Ford, Senator Ted Kennedy said that he had initially been opposed to the pardon of Nixon, but later stated that history had proved Ford to have made the correct decision.”

        That acknowledgement by Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy was (and is still) a rare bipartisan act of respect towards another opposition political leader.
  • Why do people hate the word "technology"?

    Is it hip to use monosyllabic truncations of words?

    Or cool?

    Or trendy marketing aimed at the people we otherwise call "dumb" or "illiterate", since it's more fun to dumb 'em down then call 'em dumb...
    • ZDNet hate the word.

      The problem is that Google's search engine which optimizes search results does. Long headlines are ignored, hence the need to optimize the titles of the articles for search. There's an entire industry of search engine optimization experts that know exactly what words you should use in a headline. So that's how we work, it has nothing to do with the people writing the pieces.
      • Meant to say

        "ZDNet's writers don't hate the word."
      • Something that the Googlers need to worry about

        The biggest reason why Google became the dominant search engine was the quality of the product; and the efforts put forth to make it ungameable. Perhaps Google has gotten a little lazy in recent years.
        John L. Ries
  • Not sure you can call Guam "close by".

    It was 3945.13 away.
  • Nixon's taping system

    It certainly was a large part of his undoing, but it insured that his administration was the best documented in US history. The day will come (if it hasn't already) when historians will praise him for this ill fated decision.
    John L. Ries
  • Loud Music and Pschological Warfare

    It was effective, but I don't it was President Bush's idea. Rather, if contemporary news reports are to be believed, the credit goes to General Maxwell "Mad Max" Thurman.

    That said, an effective Commander in Chief chooses his generals with care.
    John L. Ries
  • Final comment: The picture

    Effective Presidents know how to use the talents of their subordinates to their best advantage. Lyndon Johnson was probably the most talented US politician of his generation, but President Kennedy barely used him (apparently because he and his brother were afraid of him). Johnson should have been the President's principal liason with Congress; Kennedy would have gotten more of his legislative program passed (especially the Civil Rights Bill that did pass under Johnson) if he had been.
    John L. Ries
    • Civil Rights was not a big item

      on Kennedy's radar, and as far as Johnson's motives were concerned, they're best summed up by his famous statement: "I'll have those N****** voting Democrat for 200 years."
      • He was rather tentative about it...

        ...since he was worried about losing a large part of the Democratic base; but that would have been another reason for Johnson to push it for him. Johnson was himself a southern Democrat, spoke the language, understood the political culture better than any outsider could, was an enormously skilled politician, and he personally knew most of the southern Democratic members of Congress he needed to win over. And he personally believed it was necessary.

        But the Civil Rights bill was part of Kennedy's legislative program, it was part of the Democratic platform and he talked about it during the campaign.
        John L. Ries
        • And...

          ...most northern blacks were already voting Democratic, along with the vast majority of urban voters, regardless of ethnicity. That had been true since the 1930s. It didn't have to be that way, but the Republican Party started losing interest in urban affairs in the 1920s and 30s; and the white middle class voters they had come to rely on mostly moved to the suburbs after WWII.

          Curiously enough, in 1896, the Republican Presidential candidate, William McKinley won in part because he did much better in the big cities than did his Democratic rival William Jennings Bryan, who was strongest in the south and west. Yet even today, Bryan is seen as more liberal than McKinley, as he was at the time.

          Times change; often in unpredictable ways.
          John L. Ries
  • Renomination

    If Larry Dignan is paying attention to this article, Zack Whittaker should be David Getwirtz' co-author on ZDNet Government. He's intelligent, knowledgeable, interested in the subject, and the fact that he's not a US Citizen gives him an outsider's perspective, which is often useful.
    John L. Ries
    • And please give us the edit button back

      I appear be especially typo-prone.
      John L. Ries
      • You want the edit button?

        Do you think your entitled to the edit button, Ries?

        I think I'm entitled, ZDNet!

        Do you want to make corrections!


        You can't publish the Truth. Ries, ZDNet publishes in a world that has rules, and those rules have to be guarded by moderaters with crappy computers. Who's gonna do it? You, Ries? You Perlow? ZDNet has a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for your typos and you curse the added post that corrects that typo. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what ZDNet knows, that typos, while tragic, probably saves bandwidth. And our current comment policy, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves our servers from crashing. You don't want to write the truth, because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you WANT our policy to remain the same. You NEED that policy to remain the same. ZDNet uses words like "patience", "trust", "indifference". ZDNet uses those words as a backbone of a life spent operating something. You use them as a punchline. ZDNet has neither the time nor the inclination to explain itself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom allowing you to comment, and then questions the manner in which I LET you comment. We would rather you just said "thank you", and went on to your next meaningless, error-filled post. Otherwise, ZDNet suggests you just click thru all those gallery slides and vote the author's blog up. Either way, ZDNet doesn't give a damn what you think you are entitled to!
        • I didn't say I was entitled to anything

          I can ask for things to which I am not entitled. It's up to the recipient of the request to decide whether or not he wants to grant it. The edit button was a convenience for users. If ZDNet can bring it back without it costing a lot, I think it worthwhile. But it's Larry Dignan's call, not mine.

          And I'm not weeping; nor do I feel inhibited in publishing the truth as I see it (which is hopefully a close approximation to objective reality, but we all have our biases and blind spots).
          John L. Ries