Monday, February 17, 2020

Science & U.S. Presidents

                         JQA Photo.tif                      
Photograph, by Mathew Brady, of John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States, considered the Astronomy President for his efforts to bring improved astronomical observatories to America.
(Image Sources: Mathew Brady,, By Original - Unknown; Copy - Mathew Brady - National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,

By Glenn A. Walsh
Reporting for SpaceWatchtower

On Presidents' Day, SpaceWatchtower takes another look at the scientific interests and backgrounds of past American Presidents. Several American Presidents, from John Quincy Adams, truly the Astronomy President (profiled in SpaceWatchtower on Presidents' Day of 2014 by the Cincinnati Observatory Historian John E. Ventre), to Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kennedy, had a great interest and / or background in science.

1st President (1789 to 1797) – George Washington

Long before he was an American General or President, George Washington was a professional land surveyor. Starting in 1748, he started a surveying career that lasted the rest of his life. In 1749 he received a commission from the College of William and Mary to become the professional surveyor for the new Virginia County of Culpepper. By 1752, after completing nearly 200 surveys totaling more than 60,000 acres, he abandoned a professional surveyors career in favor of a military career. However, he continued surveying, off-and-on, until about five weeks before his death in 1799.

More information:

2nd President (1797 to 1801) – John Adams

In 1780, John Adams was one of the founders of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. The Academy carries out nonpartisan policy research by bringing together scientists, scholars, artists, policymakers, business leaders, and other experts to make multidisciplinary analyses of complex social, political, and intellectual topics.

3rd President (1801 to 1809) – Thomas Jefferson

For more than two decades, Thomas Jefferson was President of the American Philosophical Society, founded by Benjamin Franklin it was the preeminent scientific organization of its day. He was fascinated by the sciences, including paleontology, archeology, agriculture, engineering, architecture, and mathematics. In the Federal Government, he promoted the sciences and recommended to Congress a survey of the nation's coast, which led to the National Geodetic Survey. He founded the University of Virginia.

As Secretary of State, he oversaw the Patent Office and helped establish patent law. Although he invented several items, he never patented any of them, believing, like Benjamin Franklin, that inventions should be shared for the benefit of mankind. As President, he sponsored the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the American West, after the purchase of the huge Louisiana Territory from France.

In 1809, Thomas Jefferson said, "Nature intended me for the tranquil pursuits of science, by rendering them my supreme delight..." He also said, "Science has liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and the American example has kindled feelings of right in the people."

More information:

6th President (1825 to 1829) – John Quincy Adams

Truly the “Astronomy President,” John Quincy Adams was likely the President with the highest IQ (estimated at 70 points above average). He worked hard to establish the Harvard College Observatory and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Near the end of his life, though in feeble health, he insisted on traveling to lay the corner-stone for the Cincinnati Observatory in 1843, which two years later would house the world's second largest telescope.

He estalished a uniform system of weights and measures, improved the patent system, saw to it that there was a good survey of the nation's coasts, and generally was a strong supporter of science. He was also instrumental in helping establish the Smithsonian Institution, as a Congressman after leaving the Presidency.

More information:

16th President (1861 to 1865) – Abraham Lincoln

During his Presidency, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill creating the National Academy of Sciences. He was so concerned with farming practices that he enforced scientific techniques onto the agricultural industry. He saw to it that farmers were educated, at government expense (including the beginning of land-grant agricultural colleges), and provided the most up-to-date information on farm machinery. He encouraged the search for alternative fuels, so the country would not be so reliant on sperm whale oil. He was also the first President to hold a patent---on his invention of a method to lift boats off of sandbars and shoals.

20th President (1881) – James A. Garfield

A mathematics wizard, James Garfield developed a trapezoid proof of the Pythagorean theorem, which was published in the New England Journal of Education. And, as with Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield continued to promote Federal Government support of agricultural science.

26th President (1901 to 1909) – Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. (TR)

Theodore Roosevelt was an amazing personality. In addition to being a politician who reached the Presidency of the United States, he was also an avid conservationist and naturalist. His interest in science started as a child, when he acquired an interest in zoology and taxidermy and became a young ornithologist. Near the end of his life, he made a grand scientific expedition into the jungles of South America, supported by New York City's American Museum of Natural History, which almost cost him his life.

Theodore Roosevelt always had an interest in the environment and in conservation. President Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the United States Forest Service (USFS) and establishing 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, 4 national game preserves, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments.

The National Monuments Act, also known as the Antiquities Act, became law in 1906 with the strong support of President Roosevelt. This law gives the President of the United States the authority to restrict the use of specific public lands owned by the federal government for the preservation of historic, prehistoric, and scientific interest.

Theodore Roosevelt also closely studied naval power and technology, resulting in the publication of two books on naval warfare that continue to be considered among the subject's leading books on the subject.

More information:

27th President (1909 to 1913) – William Howard Taft

In 1913, William Howard Taft was one of the first (of three recipients) to receive a Gold Medal from the National Institute of Social Sciences, one of the oldest honorary U.S. societies which promotes the study of the social sciences and supports social science research and discussion.

31st President (1929 to 1933) – Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover, who entered Stanford University in its inaugural year of 1891, originally majored in mechanical engineering, but soon changed his major to geology after working for John Casper Branner, chair of the University's Geology Department. After interning in the Summer months with the U.S. Geological Survey, he chose a career as a mining geologist. He worked for many years as a mining engineer, after having trouble finding a job as a mining geologist, later becoming a mining consultant. This all preceded his life in the public sector which included Chair of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, Director of the U.S. Food Administration, the third U.S. Secretary of Commerce, and as the 31st President of the United States.

32nd President (1933 to 1945) – Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)

Like his fifth cousin Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a life-long interest in the environment and conservation starting with an interest in forestry on his family estate when he was young. He created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) which upgraded the National Park and National Forest systems, which he also widely promoted. He also insisted that the CCC and the Works Progress Administration upgrade state parks, as well as manage the ravaging effects of the Dust Bowl.

With the suggestion of Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard, FDR created the first scientific mega-project, the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb, ending World War II quickly and decisively.

33rd President (1945 to 1953) – Harry S. Truman

After World War II, Harry Truman worked with preeminent scientist Vannevar Bush to increase Federal funding for scientific research. And, in 1950, he signed a bill into law creating the National Science Foundation.

34th President (1953 to 1961) – Dwight D. Eisenhower (Ike)

For D-Day during World War II, U.S. General Eisenhower needed to use astronomy and meteorology to determine the best time for Allied troops to invade Normandy. Spring Tides and a Full Moon were essential for D-Day to be a success.

More information on how science was used to prepare for D-Day:

After the surprise launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite in 1957, President Eisenhower insisted on forming a civilian agency or administration to coordinate the American Space Program, rather than allowing the military to control it. The President believed a civilian agency would be more effective in the new mission, avoiding inter-military service rivalries that he felt had already showed difficulty in launching the first American satellite.

More information on President Eisenhower's proposal for NASA:

35th President (1961 to 1963) – John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK)

Although originally skeptical regarding the American Space Program, further Russian advances into Outer Space led to President Kennedy proposing an American mission to land Americans on the Moon, and return them safely to the Earth, by the end of the decade.

More information:

36th President (1963 to 1969) – Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ)

LBJ was a strong advocate for the American Space Program while he was in the U.S. Senate, helping to shepherd the bill that led to the formation of NASA through Congress. As U.S. Vice President, President Kennedy appointed LBJ as both the Chairman of the President's Ad Hoc Committee for Science and Chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council. As President, LBJ pushed-through President Kennedy's vision of landing Americans on the Moon by the end of the decade. LBJ was President during the first crewed mission to orbit the Moon, Apollo 8, and on 1969 July 16 was the first former or incumbent U.S. President to attend a rocket launch, the launch of Apollo 11 which resulted in the first Americans to land on the Moon.

More information:

37th President (1969 to 1974) – Richard M. Nixon

Although not particularly known for an interest in environmentalism, President Nixon's legacy includes the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA - 1970) and the passage of environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1970), and the Endangered Species Act (1973).

President Nixon was in office when President Kennedy's vision of Americans landing on the Moon before 1970 occurred. However, once the “Space Race” with the Russians was won, Americans quickly lost interest in the Space Program, and the President was not interested in spending the huge amounts of public money that would be necessary for a permanent, crewed base on the Moon or a crewed mission to Mars, as NASA had been planning. Instead, NASA launched the first American space station, Skylab, and in 1972 one of the canceled Apollo missions to the Moon was re-purposed as a joint American Apollo – Russian Soyuz mission in Earth orbit.

More information on President Nixon's Space Policy:

39th President (1977 to 1981) – Jimmy Carter

In 1941, Jimmy Carter began his college career with undergraduate coursework in engineering at Georgia Southwestern College in Americus, Georgia. In 1942, he transferred to the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, then in 1943 he achieved his dream of attending the U.S. Naval Academy. In 1946, he graduated from the Naval Academy with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and was commissioned in the Navy as an Ensign, where he served aboard submarines. In 1953, he was preparing to become an engineering officer on the submarine Seawolf, when his father died. Jimmy Carter then resigned his Navy commission, to return home to manage the family peanut farm.

Jimmy Carter encouraged an incremental Space Program, but did support the Space Shuttle program and the Hubble Space Telescope (which was not actually launched until 1990). A message written by President Carter was included on the golden records sent into space with the two Voyager space probes, which have now left our Solar System for Interstellar Space.

Having inherited the 1970s Energy Crisis, President Carter established the U.S. Department of Energy, promoted research into alternative energy sources, and proposed energy conservation schemes.

Although a Baptist Sunday School teacher, the President did have a friendship with the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould.

40th President (1981 to 1989) – Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan was a strong proponent of space exploration, including the Space Shuttle program and the International Space Station. He started the controversial Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which detractors called “Star Wars,” due to its reliance on space-based defense systems; some people believe SDI, although never perfected, helped to hasten the end of the Cold War. Although not an environmentalist, he quickly banned ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons when a hole in the atmosphere's ozone layer was scientifically demonstrated.

43rd President (2001 to 2009) – George W. Bush

In President George W. Bush's first years in office, he increased funding for the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health as part of his education agenda. He also created educational programs to strengthen the grounding of science and mathematics for American high school students. However, rising inflation led to a cut in the National Institutes of Health funding in 2006, the first such cut to the agency in 36 years.

Although President Bush said he believed global warming was real and is a serious problem, his Administration's stance on the issue remained controversial among scientists and environmentalists. He claimed there is a "debate over whether it's man-made or naturally caused." Critics of his Administration contend that he did little to solve the problem of global warming and did not publicize the problem.

In his 2006 State of the Union Address, the President announced his Advanced Energy Initiative to increase energy development research. In the State of the Union Address over the following two years he repeated his pledge to work towards increasing alternative fuel production. In the 2008 address, he also said he would work with other countries on clean energy projects to reverse the growth of greenhouse gasses.

Although President Bush said he favors research using adult stem cells, he issued the first veto of his Presidency for the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act, which would have repealed a previous bill thus allowing the use of embryonic stem cells in research.

44th President (2009 to 2017) – Barack Obama

In a major space policy speech in April of 2010, President Obama announced changes to the NASA mission including ending the Aries I and V rockets and Constellation program for returning humans to the Moon, in favor of funding Earth science projects, continuing missions to the International Space Station, and a new rocket type and research and development for an eventual crewed mission to Mars.

In 2009, he proposed new regulations on power plants, factories, and oil refineries to curb greenhouse gases causing global warming. He also opposed the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, due to its potential increase in carbon pollution. To expand the conservation of Federal lands, he used the Antiquities Act to create 25 National Monuments and expand 4 others.

President Obama, during his tenure, began several popular science projects: annual White House Science Fair, annual White House Astronomy Night, and a 2016 White House Science Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh.

More information on the 2016 White House Science Frontiers Conference and the White House Astronomy Night at the Allegheny Observatory, both in Pittsburgh:

Internet Link to Additonal Information ---

List of Presidents of the United States of America:
Link >>>

Related Blog Posts ---

"Requirement for World War II D-Day: Full Moon !" Thur., 2019 June 6.

Link >>>


"White House Science Frontiers Conference & Astronomy Night in Pittsburgh."

 Fri., 2016 Oct. 14.

Link >>>


170th Anniversary: Smithsonian Institution." Wed., 2016 Aug. 10.

Link >>>


"Presidents' Day: The Astronomy President." Mon., 2014 Feb. 17.

Link >>>


"JFK: Loss of the Man Who Sent Us to the Moon." Fri., 2013 Nov. 22.

Link >>>

Source: Glenn A. Walsh Reporting for SpaceWatchtower, a project of Friends of the Zeiss.
              Monday, 2020 February 17.

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Glenn A. Walsh, Informal Science Educator & Communicator: >
Electronic Mail: < >
Project Director, Friends of the Zeiss: < >
SpaceWatchtower Editor / Author: < >
Formerly Astronomical Observatory Coordinator & Planetarium Lecturer, original Buhl Planetarium & Institute of Popular Science (a.k.a. Buhl Science Center), Pittsburgh's science & technology museum from 1939 to 1991.
Formerly Trustee, Andrew Carnegie Free Library and Music Hall, Pittsburgh suburb of Carnegie, Pennsylvania.
Author of History Web Sites on the Internet --
* Buhl Planetarium, Pittsburgh:
  < >
* Adler Planetarium, Chicago:
  < >
* Astronomer, Educator, Optician John A. Brashear:
  < >
* Andrew Carnegie & Carnegie Libraries:
  < >


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