Today, an engineer feeds millions of people. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Herbert Hoover's two great
misfortunes were to be made president of the United
States on the eve of the terrible 1929 depression,
and then to run into the shrewdest political mind
of the 20th century in his bid for reelection. It
takes nothing from his opponent, Roosevelt, to say
that the circumstances of Hoover's presidency
temporarily blinded a lot of people to his real
Hoover was born in Iowa in 1874 and raised as a
Quaker. He was orphaned when he was eight and then
passed among loving Quaker relatives until he set
off to a brand new university in California. It was
called Stanford. As he studied geology there, two
contradictory qualities emerged and marked him for
life -- his extreme shyness on the one hand and his
charisma and internal security on the other. He was
a natural leader.
Hoover became a mining engineer -- not just a
businessman who worked in mining, but one of the
truly great mining engineers of all time. Hoover
was not quite 40 when WW-I broke out. He was then
functioning as a freelance consulting engineer. He
had shaped worldwide mining patterns on six
But from the outbreak of WW-I until he died, Hoover
never kept another cent of salary. His Quaker
response to the war was not to ride off to battle,
but rather to form a group called the Belgian
Relief Committee. It wasn't popular. Both sides
bleated their suspicions. The Germans torpedoed his
grain-ships, but Hoover rallied neutral nations to
front for the effort. In the end his genius fed
millions of starving Europeans during and after the
war. It's no surprise that Hoover streets and
Hoover parks sprang up in 20 countries after WW-I.
Hoover was made secretary of commerce in 1921 and
president in 1928. After his terrible defeat in
1932 -- after quite unjustly bearing the blame for
the '29 depression -- the 58-year-old Hoover had
little choice but to retire. President Truman
brought him out of retirement in 1946. Never mind
political labels; Truman knew what he could do and
put him in charge of European relief. Hoover
quickly assessed the extent of the need and set the
very basis of the Marshall Plan, which saved Europe
from starvation a second time.
Hoover outlived Roosevelt; he
outlived Kennedy. He outlived his unhappy
presidency. He was 90 when he died in 1964. By then
it was clear that Hoover was one of the great
humanitarians of our age -- an engineer who dealt
in resources -- a subtly religious man who knew
that we may not live by bread alone, but we surely
don't live very long without it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Burner, D., Herbert Hoover, A Public Life. New
York: Knopf, 1979.
Lyons, E., Herbert Hoover, A Biography.
Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.
Your library's on-line catalog will offer many
books detailing Hoover's life as a humanitarian, a
scholar, a statesman, an engineer, etc.
See also Episode 139.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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