Engines of Our Ingenuity
No. 136:
HERBERT HOOVER

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 136.

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 greatness.

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 continents.

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 work.

(Theme music)


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. Lienhard.

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