President Eisenhower didn’t know how to use a rotary-dial telephone, even though he had the 50 millionth phone

Eisenhower and dial telephone history

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Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States, and was in office 1953-1961.

Before his time as President, he was a five-star general in the Army, and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II.

Despite all of that military expertise, President Eisenhower still didn’t know how to do one simple thing that millions of other people could: Dial a phone.

Even when, at age 63, he was shown how to use the 50 millionth telephone in service in the USA, the lesson apparently didn’t take. Find out more below!

Ike Eisenhower & those newfangled telephones

Prior to moving into his Gettysburg home, President Eisenhower wasn’t familiar with rotary phones.

In the White House, his phones were dial-less. He need only lift the receiver and he was immediately connected to his personal switchboard operator.

The President’s very first attempt at using a rotary phone was witnessed by a Secret Service agent.

Upon lifting the receiver and being confronted with a dial tone, the President began to repeatedly press the dial tone button. When that achieved no results, he hung up and began turning the dial as though the phone were a safe. He finally gave up and turned to the agent for assistance.

The agent recalled that the President spent the next hour happily calling all his friends, enjoying the phone as though he were playing with a brand new toy.

eisenhower rotary dial telephones

The above information and the photo of three rotary-dial telephones (c1955) courtesy of the Eisenhower National Historic Site.

They note, “Gold phones were not made, so this one was custom-painted, likely done by request of Elizabeth Draper, Inc. so phone would match the color scheme of the house.”

ALSO SEE: How do you use a rotary-dial phone? Find out, plus get top telephone tips from the olden days

The 50th million telephone given to President Eisenhower

NOVEMBER 18, 1953

The 50 millionth telephone - presented to President Eisenhower

Mr. Craig Discusses Significance of Historic Event as Bell System and Independent Telephone Industry Join to Present Symbolic Instrument to President Eisenhower Fifty Millionth Telephone Installed in White House

By Cleo F. Craig

Editor’s note: The fifty millionth telephone placed in service in this country was presented to Dwight D. Eisenhower, President of the United States, on Wednesday morning, November 15 [1953], in the White House.

Presentation was by Cleo F. Craig, President of American Telephone and Telegraph Company, representing the Bell System companies, and Darren B. Clay, President of the United States Independent Telephone Association, representing nearly 5300 independently-owned telephone companies.

A commemorative scroll which they also presented to Mr. Eisenhower is reproduced on the next page. They were accompanied to the White House by Rosel H. Hyde, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, and C. L. Doherty, President of the National Association of Railroad and Utilities Commissioners.

A dinner held that evening in a Washington hotel to signalize the event, and attended by representatives of the government, the armed forces, and the telephone industry, was addressed by Mr. Craig, Mr. Clay, and Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield. Mr. Craig’s remarks follow:

There are a lot of reasons why we telephone people are happy to be here tonight.

But speaking for us in the Bell System, I’d like to say first to our associates and friends of the independent telephone companies that one of the things we like the very best is this chance to be together with you.

We are pleased no end — as co-authors, so to speak, of the telephone story — to take part with you in marking our joint achievement.

We are also delighted to join with you in extending the warmest possible welcome to our guests from government and the armed services and all who share our deep interest in telephone progress.

My thoughts on this occasion are quite simple. President Elsenhower’s acceptance this morning of the fifty millionth telephone was a gracious and inspiring recognition of the part we play in the life of the nation. The President has done us great honor. He has also given us, I think, new cause to weigh our opportunities and our responsibilities.

Let me recall to your minds something the President said on another occasion. I think the connection will be clear.

President Dwight D Eisenhower

In his Inaugural Address last January, he observed that the strength of all free peoples lies in their unity. And he went on to say, “To produce this unity, to meet the challenge of our time, destiny has laid on our country the responsibility of the free world’s leadership.”

Those words give expression to a compelling fact. We in this country are face to face with the plain truth that the responsibility of leadership is ours. We could not escape it even if we wanted to.

What does this mean to us who provide America’s telephone service?

To my notion, it means that a very considerable share of the responsibility the President speaks of rests on us. The nation’s capacity for leadership in the free world begins with unity at home.

If Americans are to come together and work together with the greatest effectiveness, they must be just as free as possible to talk with each other. They must learn from each other, think with each other, plan with each other, grow with each other. They must communicate.

And they must be able to do so with complete ease and freedom, wherever they are, and whatever their need.

Of course, I am not saying that the telephone by itself can create unity. But it certainly can and must nourish and feed it and aid and abet it.

It can and must help it to flourish and grow. In this day and age, the telephone is indispensable to the unity and progress of our country, and no one knows what great things may have their beginnings in the way we do our job.

President Eisenhower with 50 millionth phone

Another thought: This country leads the world in telephone service because we have never let up in our efforts to find a better way.

We wouldn’t be serving fifty million telephones today if we were still limited to the methods and means of the past. The quality of service wouldn’t attract that many customers, the cost would be too high, and even If these things were not true, we couldn’t find enough people to do the job.

Furthermore — and this is what I want to emphasize — the very progress we are celebrating, and the changes we set in motion, affect us fully as much as they affect anyone else.

Look how colorful vintage phones used to be!

For instance, we make it possible for industry and the armed forces to coordinate their operations on a broader and broader scale — and then what happens? They promptly ask us for services that require us to coordinate our own work more than ever before.

Again, telephone progress has greatly expanded the local service areas where subscribers have a close community of interest. And again the result, in more and more places, is to bring Independent and Bell companies into the closest possible association in providing the local service.

In such ways, and notably also in the spread of long-distance dialing, the advances we are making directly influence ourselves. Nor is this to be wondered at. We can hardly expect to bring the nation closer and closer together without the same thing happening in our own back yard.

The happy fact is that there is now more down-to-earth, day-to-day working together throughout the entire telephone industry than there ever was before. Nothing but good can come of this, and in any event, there is just no other way to get on with the job.

The 50 millionth telephone certificatte - 1953 - for President Eisenhower

All I want to say on this point can be summed up in a few words. First, we of the Bell System are tremendously glad that you people of the Independent telephone companies are just the people you are. We’re glad it’s you we are working with.

Second, let’s keep it in mind that the continuing progress of the business always creates a lot more good than It creates problems. If that were not so, none of us would be here tonight.

In conclusion, I hope profoundly that none of us will ever forget the true nature of the service we render.

It is human — living — personal — friendly.

It is something we do for the family next door and for the business down the street.

The real meaning of fifty million telephones is not in their total number, but in the people we bring together in every community in the land. The secret of our success in serving others is not in the machines we use but in the ways we choose to use them.

President Dwight D Eisenhower (R): Informed citizens are the guardian & spirit of democracy (1960)

We have always used machines. As we use them more and more in the years ahead, we must be diligent to make sure that our human spirit of service is fully maintained and always shines forth strong and clear.

You will remember another thought that President Elsenhower expressed in the speech I have already quoted. He said, “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”

I submit also that whatever we of the telephone industry hope to bring to pass in our country must first come to pass in the hearts of telephone people.

We can only make a nation of neighbors by being good neighbors ourselves — good neighbors to everyone we serve, in every community and corner of the land. That is the way, and the only way, for us to keep on increasing our contribution to the unity of our country, the strength of the free peoples, and the hope of peace in the world.

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Comments on this story

One Response

  1. Several reasons exist why “Ike” (President EIsenhower) didn’t know how to use a modern dial phone. Before he was U.S. president, he was supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force (a US Army general) — he had aides de camp to make calls for him and also used personal messengers, radiotelephone operators, and telegraph operators…

    He was also formerly president of Columbia University, NYC — with a secretary to make calls for him.

    He was also supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), so he was a big cheese — again, he had people to make calls for him. He wasn’t an E-6 (staff sergeant) who had to do it all himself… It’s as if people think Elon Musk does his own taxes or pays his own phone bill… He has a STAFF.

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