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

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.
1 of 14 John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

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.

2 of 14 Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army

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. 

3 of 14 Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Dept. of Energy

Harry S. Truman: The first programmable computers

After Truman's nuclear option ended World War II, priorities were aligned back to domestic rebuilding and recovery. But a new threat emerged: espionage and eventual terrorism.

Truman's weapon of choice was the "Giant Brain," or the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer — known as ENIAC. Not designed solely for codebreaking, unlike Britain's Colossus machines, it was the first electronic general-purpose computer ever built, and was one of the most powerful of its day. Eventually, this led to the signing of a secret presidential order that would become the foundation for what is now known as the National Security Agency.

4 of 14 U.S. Dept. of Energy

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Nukes, nukes, and more nukes

Eisenhower presided over a period where nuclear ambitions and deterrents were all the rage. He started the U.S.' debut strategy aimed at combating intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in response to the Soviet Union's rocket launching capabilities.

What may not necessarily count as a technology per se, Eisenhower was almost certainly defined by his peaceful nuclear policies. He presided over a period that saw a massive expansion in nuclear energy, defined by his "Atoms for Peace" speech at the United Nations in 1953. An array of nuclear power and technology institutions were founded following the speech, creating a new peaceful post-World War II nuclear age. 


5 of 14 NASA/U.S. Congress

John F. Kennedy: Saturn V Rocket and the Space Race

Kennedy may not have lived to see what he started following his 1963 assassination, but one of his defining moments during his cut-short tenure in the White House was announcing the ambitious goal of sending an American to the Moon in 1961.

The Saturn V rocket became the crucial delivery tool for NASA's Apollo programs from 1966 to 1963 as the most powerful rocket ever to be brought to operation. Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the Moon's surface, just shy of a decade following Kennedy's defining speech.

6 of 14 U.S. Air Force

Lyndon B. Johnson: B-52 Bomber

During Johnson's two-terms in the Oval Office, he oversaw the escalation of American involvement and combat troops in Vietnam during the controversial war. The crucial tool used by U.S. forces during this time was the B-52 bomber, which was used heavily during the conflict.

While a number of different aircraft were used, the B-52 was used primarily to fly from based in Thailand and nearby islands, such as Guam. When air raids failed to stop the North Vietnamese forces, B-52 bombers were used in heavy bombing campaigns while flying at a safe height to avoid most ground attacks.

7 of 14 National Archives & Records Administration

Richard Nixon: Tape recorder

Nixon's time as commander-in-chief was overshadowed by the Watergate scandal, a political scandal that the President attempted to cover up and was ultimately forced to resign from office after it emerged into public light.

It's little surprise that of all the technology or gadgetry that any U.S. head of state has ever used, likely the most defining for Nixon was the humble tape recorder, which ultimately proved he had attempted to cover up the affair that showed he and others had abused their official power.

8 of 14 Imgur

Gerald Ford: M1911 Pistol

Ford was something of a dull man to fit a presidential profile, but there's almost no doubt he was a tough one. For Ford, we're handing him the standard service revolver of World War II, where he defined himself as a man and decorated veteran in the U.S. Navy.

The M1911 sidearm was used by U.S. Armed Forces from 1911 through to 1985, and would have been used by Ford where he served in the Navy and rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. 

9 of 14 National Archives & Records Administration

Jimmy Carter: The energy crisis president

Carter was one of the more unpopular presidents, looking back with the benefit of hindsight. Dogged with the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, one of the defining problems for Carter during his presidency was the ongoing fuel crisis.

With oil and natural gas in high demand and massive lines at fueling stations, he was criticized heavily for failing to meet high expectations of the public. His legacy boils down to rising energy costs and ultimately a recession — albeit short — but a recession nonetheless.

10 of 14 White House Photo Office

Ronald Reagan: Laser and particle beam weapons

What may have sounded like science fiction at the time, Ronald Reagan presided over a time that saw nuclear ballistic missile threats a viable and likely reality, particularly in the height of the Cold War.

While the Strategic Defense Initiative, a comprehensive network of orbiting satellites designed for shooting down Soviet ballistic missiles, was never seen to fruition, the program began the essential research for the laser weapons now being tested in the U.S. Air Force. 

11 of 14 U.S. Dept. of Defense

George H. W. Bush: Loud music and psychological warfare

For the first Bush president in our list, Bush Sr. may not be best remembered for this, but his use of psychological warfare technology during the Panama crisis will nonetheless survive forever in his legacy.

Operation Nifty Package was a 1989 combat mission designed to capture the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who was ultimately removed from power by the Bush administration. How? When Noriega fled to a Vatican embassy in Panama, the U.S. flew helicopters over the Holy See mission and blasted loud music to weed out the despot. Reports claim songs by The Clash were played for about three days before the Vatican complained and the music ceased.

Noriega was ultimately tried, convicted, and jailed in the U.S. and France, and Panama, where he is currently incarcerated.

12 of 14 Time Inc.

Bill Clinton: Sex scandals and web-based citizen journalism

Clinton became one of the most popular presidents of modern times, but was nevertheless embroiled in controversy following the Lewinsky affair that led to his impeachment by Congress. It wasn't necessarily the scandal itself that would define his two-term presidency, but the emergence of "citizen journalism" that would bring the allegations of sexual misconduct to light.

The Drudge Report broke the news in mid-January 1998, alleging that Newsweek turned down the story. It was one of the first cases of citizen journalism to hit the Web after it became increasingly mainstream towards the end of the 20th century. 

13 of 14 Bing Maps via Public Intelligence

George W. Bush: Cruise missiles and encryption-busting supercomputers

The second Bush president in U.S. history, "Dubya" like his father led an invasion in the Gulf that would eventually see Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein toppled from power and brought to justice for crimes against humanity. The campaign dubbed "shock and awe" followed the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City saw the full might of the U.S. Armed Forces attack major Iraqi cities in the first stage of military intervention in the region. 

Bush also, during his second term, expanded the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance capabilities, some of which were considered illegal, that were eventually disclosed by Edward Snowden. One of the key disclosures of Bush's intelligence gathering efforts included the BULLRUN program, an encryption-cracking supercomputer system designed to circumvent online privacy protections.

14 of 14 White House/Flickr

Barack Obama: BlackBerrys and unmanned drones

Arguably the most tech-savvy president of all time, Obama was during his time as senator glued to his BlackBerry — in spite of the company's continued downfall. 

But Obama will likely be known best, particularly during his second term, for the controversial "targeted killing" programs, which ensnared its first U.S. citizen living outside America. In early 2010, Obama approved the drone strike that later in September 2011 killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a high-ranking al-Qaeda operative, living in Pakistan.

Many, including those in Congress, have questioned the legality of drone strikes on U.S. and foreign targets, but they continue to be a useful tool and weapon in the Obama administration's arsenal amid the ongoing war on terror.

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