The majority of our nation’s past presidents came from an academic or professional background — such as law, writing or education — rather than a technical or scientific one. In honor of President’s Day and as the kick-off to this year’s annual Engineers Week, we are celebrating five unique presidents who proved to have minds for engineering.
George Washington – (Presidency: April 30, 1789 – March 4, 1797)
Most famous for being the first President of the United States and cutting down cherry trees, many people are not aware that amongst George Washington’s many talents was a knack for both geography and cartography. In fact, Washington spent his early professional career as a surveyor before some of his more distinguished endeavors as a business man, war hero and president. History shows that when serving as a military officer during the revolutionary war, Washington preferred to create his own field sketches as opposed to having them drawn up for him.
Thomas Jefferson – (Presidency: March 4, 1801 – March 4, 1809)
Perhaps one of the most famous and influential figures in United States history, our third president, Thomas Jefferson, certainly thought like an engineer. Although classicism was his official expertise, Jefferson is often celebrated as America’s first great native-born architect. Even more impressively, Jefferson was self-made, gaining all of his architectural knowledge from books because of the lack of schools in colonial Virginia. Evidence of our founding father’s talent can be seen at the University of Virginia, or the state capitol building in Richmond, Virginia (both of which he designed). Jefferson’s work is uniquely American and still influences modern day architecture.
Abraham Lincoln – (Presidency: March 4, 1861 – April 15, 1865)
Most famous for abolishing slavery, our 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln is known as both a successful lawyer and politician. However, most people are not aware that Lincoln spent a great deal of time studying mathematics, which qualified him for his early career as a land surveyor. In fact, in fall 1833 Lincoln spent countless days and nights pouring over texts such as Gibson’s Theory and Practice of Surveying and Flint’s Treatise on Geometry, Trigonometry, and Rectangular Surveying, both of which prepared him for making measurements in the field.
Herbert Hoover – (Presidency: March 4, 1929 – March 4, 1933)
President Hoover is the only president who had an official background in engineering. In 1985, he graduated from Stanford University with a Bachelor degree in mining engineering. Before winning the presidential election by a landslide in 1928, Herbert Hoover had a colorful career. The 31st president of the United States built his foundation working around the world on mining and railway projects, participating as a member of several war boards and councils and also serving as the Chairman of the American relief administration engaged in children’s relief in Europe. President Hoover greatly enjoyed his work as an engineer and spoke of the profession in high regard.
“It is a great profession. There is the fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege.”
Jimmy Carter – (Presidency: January 20, 1977 – January 20, 1981)
Next to President Hoover, Jimmy Carter is the second closest of all 45 presidents to have an official background in engineering. He attended the Georgia Institute of Technology for one year before enrolling in the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis where he received a Bachelor of Science degree and became a submariner. While serving as a submariner in Schenectady, New York, he took graduate classes at Union College in reactor technology and nuclear physics. Carter served in the United States Navy for seven years on nuclear submarines. In fact, Carter was preparing to become the engineering officer in 1953 for the Seawolf before he abruptly resigned in the event of his father’s passing. Carter’s love for engineering is evident in the years following his presidency through his extensive work for Habitat for Humanity.
Written by Grace Mulleavey