Invisible Ground: Augmented Reality, Storytelling and Immersive History
Invisible Ground is a podcast, telling the stories of the familiar places and people in southeast Ohio which might not be always visible, but are part of our daily life.
We know what modern American presidents sound like. Their voices, accents and cadences are as distinct as the leaders themselves, and they echo in our collective memory years after leaving office. If you close your eyes and recall your least favorite recent president, you can probably conjure his voice as quickly and vividly as his face.
This wasn’t always the case. Well into the 20th century, newspapers remained the primary vehicles for sharing a president’s words directly with the public. Readers had to imagine how their elected leaders sounded.
Ohioan Rutherford B. Hayes was likely the first U.S. president to have his voice recorded, but evidence of that capture has been lost. Benjamin Harrison’s address at the 1889 Pan-American Congress is the earliest example of recorded presidential speech that remains accessible today – not just the words themselves, but the way he said them – because it was physically registered onto an Edison wax cylinder (hear it here).
Historically, then, most Americans could not expect to hear their leaders. This would change with Warren G. Harding. President Harding, whose papers and photographs are preserved at the Ohio History Connection, spent less than 30 months in office, from March 1921 until his death in August 1923. Yet his abridged political career spanned several key developments in audio communication. Harding was the first president to deliver an amplified inaugural address, the first to have a radio set installed in the White House, and the first to speak on the radio. His voice introduced many Americans to the very idea of being able to hear their president.
In this letter Golterman sent to Harding’s secretary George B. Christian, Jr., he predicted at least 1,000,000 people would hear Harding's recent talk on the League of Nations.
Between 1918 and 1920, St. Louis attorney Guy Golterman directed a recording project known as the Nation's Forum. With support from both the U.S. State Department and the Columbia Graphophone Company, Golterman produced and distributed audio recordings of speeches by American military and political leaders.
Before becoming president, Warren G. Harding recorded at least eight talks for the Nation’s Forum. For these, he traveled to New York and recreated speeches he had already delivered elsewhere to live audiences.
Harding’s “front porch campaign” brought an estimated 600,000 visitors to Marion between July and October 1920. In front of his house at 380 Mt. Vernon Avenue, Harding addressed crowds numbering in the thousands without the aid of amplification.
In this photograph, two people climb trees to get a better view of the candidate.
In September of 1920, Harding made a rare campaign trip to the Minnesota State Fair, where he gave a speech focused on agriculture. The Minneapolis Morning Tribune predicted a crowd of 25,000 on the grandstand, noting: “Additional voice amplifiers have been installed since the visit of Governor Cox, Democratic nominee, and it is reasonably certain that everyone of the vast audience will be able to hear the message with Senator Harding is to deliver.”
The next day, the Tribune reported that “Harding Day” had brought record attendance to the fair, with Harding “telephoning” his message to 30,000 listeners.
This crystal radio receiver was made by the DeForest Radio Telephone & Telegraph Company of New York between 1919 and 1924. Ohio History Connection Collection, H 68815.
On November 2, 1920, radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh broadcast the results of the United States presidential election. That evening — in the first commercial radio broadcast in American history — listeners learned Harding had defeated James Cox to become the 29th president of the United States.
Radio was still in its infancy when people tuned in to the 1920 election returns, and the Ohio History Connection has an example of a “crystal radio” set from the era. These early devices earned their name because they used a crystalline material to receive radio waves. Though crystal radio sets produced weak sound and could only tune into stations within a limited range, they set the stage for radio’s popularity throughout the 1920s.
Harding delivered his inaugural address from a mahogany podium on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol building on March 4, 1921. The podium was adorned with a gold heraldic eagle and other accents. More notable, however, was a speaker box next to the podium. The box was part of a loud speaker system that Bell Telephone Systems installed for the event. Thanks to that “Bellampliphone,” Harding delivered the first amplified presidential inaugural address.
In December of 1920, New York Congressman Hamilton Fish, Jr. proposed “to bring home the body of an unknown American warrior who in himself represents no section, creed, or race in the late war and who typifies, moreover, the soul of America and the supreme sacrifice of her heroic dead.”
On November 11, 1921, Armistice Day, President Harding officiated the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These photographs capture the crowd gathered at Arlington National Cemetery, but they do not represent the full audience for Harding’s address. Through telephone wires, Harding’s words were simultaneously delivered to listeners gathered in New York’s Madison Square Garden and the San Francisco Convention Center.
Harding later wrote to Harry B. Thayer, president of the Bell System:
The wonder of it has been magnified in my own mind by the reports which have come from those cities describing the attitude of the people; of how they followed the exercises in every detail, even to joining in the singing and in the words of prayer at the conclusion of the address. (Quoted in Wallace, p. 35)
The White House didn’t have a radio when Harding took office, but in 1922, he took measures to get one. Representatives from the Navy Department installed the radio for him in the second-floor library on a bookcase near his desk. It was a far cry from the humble crystal sets that people used to listen to coverage of his election victory in 1920; Harding’s radio had significantly greater range than the amateur set, allowing him to listen to stations across the continental U.S. and even overseas. He became an “expert” with his radio, and tuned in as much as possible when at the White House.
Radio soon helped bring Harding and the public closer than ever before. In 1922, he became the first U.S. president to have his voice transmitted live over the airwaves. In May, he delivered speeches to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and at the Lincoln Memorial Dedication, both of which were broadcast by a radio station at the Naval Air Station outside of Washington. In June, a Baltimore station aired Harding’s speech at Fort McHenry.
Then, in 1923, President Harding delivered his first nationally broadcast speech. It was the first time many Americans had a chance to hear their president. On June 23, while in St. Louis on his western tour known as the “Voyage of Understanding,” AT&T established the first chain or “network” of three radio stations. They broadcast Harding’s words in St. Louis, New York, and Washington, D.C. By the end of July, AT&T had expanded to create a coast-to-coast network that reached San Francisco.
Harding died shortly after, but not before having a radio transmitter installed in his railroad car, turning the Voyage of Understanding into an endeavor in mobile broadcasting. Learn more about Harding's radio broadcasts from the Harding Presidential Sites.
“30,000 on One Line,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, September 9, 1920, p. 1: https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/PsImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=addabf07-f848-43e3-a488-2782562f220d%2Fmnhi0005%2F1DFC5G5C%2F20090901
The Concise Encyclopedia of American Radio, eds. Cary O'Dell and Christopher H. Sterling (New York, Taylor & Francis), 2010.
Douglas B. Craig, Fireside Politics: Radio and Political Culture in the United States, 1920-1940 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2000.
“Harding on State ‘Front Porch’ Today,” Minneapolis Morning Tribune, September 8, 1920, p. 1: https://newspapers.mnhs.org/jsp/PsImageViewer.jsp?doc_id=addabf07-f848-43e3-a488-2782562f220d%2Fmnhi0005%2F1DFC5G5C%2F20090801
Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination (New York: Random House), 1999.
"President Enthusiastic Radio Fan ‘Listens-In’ Almost Daily,” Telephony, April 8, 1922, p.23: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112101741210&view=1up&seq=387
“President Harding is Heard,” The Mountain States Monitor, 1921, p.28-30: rb.gy/ptxm7g.
Jerry L. Wallace, Calvin Coolidge: Our First Radio President (Plymouth Notch, VT: The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation), 2008: https://coolidgefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/CCBOOKOur-First-Radio-PresidentPrint-Copy-July-2008-PDF.pdf
Jerry L. Wallace, "First Presidential Radio Broadcast," Harding Presidential Sites blog: https://hardingpresidentialsites.org/2022/05/29/first-presidential-radio-broadcast-marks-100-year-anniversary
This post was created with grant support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.