National Trust for Historic Preservation

Intellectual and Technological Change in the Wilson Years

Intellectual and Technologial Change in the Wilson Years Overlay


“Science…has won for us a great liberty in the physical world, a liberty from superstitious fear and from disease, a freedom to use nature as a familiar servant; but it has not freed us from ourselves.”

Wilson was president as the 20th century was morphing into an era recognizable to a modern audience. When Wilson was born railroads had still not reached across the country and the telegraph was relatively new. While Wilson was in college, Edison invented the light bulb. When Wilson died, radio had started its spread across the country, airplanes were carrying the mail, telephones were becoming common and millions of people enjoyed watching movies every week.

Woodrow Wilson was an inspiration for a generation of new political thinkers. Among his greatest legacies were those whom he inspired to public service. Among those who carried forth Wilson’s legacy were Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, both held positions in the Wilson White House and who visited him afterwards at S Street. In Paris, Wilson brought along a great number of “university men” who formed the basis of what would become our first professional foreign service, such as Christian Herter, Allen and John Foster Dulles, Henry White, Norman Davis, Bernard Baruch, Vance McCormick and Col. Edward House. Wilson surrounded himself with an intimate and intellectual circle of friends. He continued friendships from his days at Princeton and several, including Cleveland Dodge, Cyrus McCormick and Jesse Jones, established an annuity to support Wilson in his retirement since the President received no pension at that time. Wilson’s influence on the century was carried out in the careers of the many whom he had inspired as they became “new dealers” and “cold warriors.” They would take up the fight for Wilson’s League of Nations to become the United Nations after another World War.

Woodrow Wilson was a household name to a generation. Wilson’s image was greatly exploited and internationally known because of innovations in motion pictures, fast celluloid film and gravure printing. New technology allowed Wilson’s notion of “looking presidential” to develop into an icon for much of the twentieth century. He was known to dress for the occasion, whether for a round of golf or negotiations at the Peace Conference. Wilson embodied the forward-looking vision that was crucial to the nation after the Great War.

Wilson embraced and encouraged new technology. He opened the Panama Canal, started air mail service, endorsed the creation of an interstate highway system, appeared in one of the first filmed campaign advertisement, used a microphone for the amplification of his voice, and witnessed the birth of radio.

While Wilson remained the old-fashioned romantic, he also enjoyed and took advantage of new technology. As a young lawyer, he bought one of the first typewriters. He was a dedicated bicyclist when they became popular in the 1890s and was an avid biker until he became president in 1913. As president, and then on S Street, he was an enthusiastic movie fan, enjoying the latest comedies and adventure movies, screening them at home as well as watching them in the theater. When he lived on S Street, Wilson even subscribed to movie magazines to keep up with the latest from Hollywood.

Wilson gave the first remote live radio broadcast from his house on S Street in November 1923. As president, he established the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which decades later became NASA. He also was president when the Panama Canal opened in 1914 and inaugurated Air Mail service. Most of all, however, Wilson loved automobiles. Although he never learned to drive, he went out for rides every day as president and continued the practice after he left office. During his presidency he had a small fleet of cars for his use and proposed the first National Highway legislation. Upon leaving the White House in 1921, friends purchased his favorite Pierce Arrow from the government for his use on S Street. On December 28th 1923, Wilson’s last birthday, he received a new Rolls Royce Silver Ghost limousine from his Princeton friends as a present.