Herbert Hoover: Engineer, President, and Humanitarian

Note: I wrote this “mini-biography,” which is part of an evolving series appearing on my website, to help inquisitive individuals of all ages learn more about engineering. We may know something about engineering because we frequently see or use the results of engineers’ efforts. Another way to learn about engineering is to meet some exemplary engineers. Herbert Hoover was an exemplary engineer. Read his story and, if you want to know more, use the sources listed at the end.

- Stuart G. Walesh, PhD, PE

Youth and Promise

Herbert C. Hoover, who became the 31st president of the United States, was born in West Branch, Iowa in 1874. Called Bert, he and his brother and sister were raised by Quakers, which influenced many aspects of Hoover’s character. He was guided by Quaker values such as peace, service, thrift, ambition, individual enterprise, entrepreneurialism, and hard work.
By the time he was nine, Bert had lost both of his parents to illness after which he was eventually cared for by a Quaker uncle in Oregon. He attended a Quaker school where he was described as being a “fair student” who was “painfully quiet and shy.” As a teenager, Hoover exhibited some Quaker values by learning basic bookkeeping and typing, starting a sewing machine repair business, and reading widely. Later, as an adult, he wrote, “Suddenly I began to see books as living things and was ready for more of them.”

In 1891, Hoover entered Stanford University as one of its first students, and began studying geology and mining—stimulated by a childhood interest in rocks and fossils. At Stanford, Hoover began to demonstrate his “ability to successfully orchestrate large and complicated projects.” He would apply that knowledge, skill, and attitude set on an ever-expanding scale in engineering and business and in public service.1,2

Renowned Engineer, Business Person, and Author

Immediately after graduation from Stanford in 1895, Hoover began a rapid rise that would culminate in him being globally recognized as the “Great Engineer.” Some of his positions, listed chronologically from 1895 to 1908, were miner, office boy, data analyst, mine scout, mine manager, chief field engineer, and partner of a global mining company. As he moved up in responsibility, he was often assisted by his wife Lou; they met in a geology lab at Stanford, were married in 1899, and had two sons.

By about age 30, Hoover earned an extremely high income and traveled the world as a well-known and respected engineer. He started his own mining firm in 1908; established offices in the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Russia; and was known as the “doctor of sick mines.”

Although not an accomplished speaker, Hoover wrote widely and fervently, including mining and engineering articles for industry periodicals. He and Lou translated the sixteenth-century book De Re Metallica, about metal science and mining, from Latin into English. The five-year project drew on Lou’s Latin knowledge and Bert’s mining engineering expertise. Hoover authored over 20 books about highly varied topics as suggested by these titles: American Individualism, Principles of Mining, and Fishing for Fun—and to Wash Your Soul.3,4

Humanitarian: Part 1

During World War I, Herbert Hoover was asked by U.S. and European diplomats to lead an effort to save people in Europe from starvation. Belgium, for example, which was heavily dependent on imports for food, had been overrun by the German army, which was intercepting imported food for its own use.

Hoover’s response to the invitation: He would accept no salary but must be given “absolute command” to do the job. He clearly thought he knew the magnitude of the task and had a vision of how to accomplish it. Robertson Smith, who worked with Hoover on the Belgium effort, said this about Hoover’s vision: “There is something almost terribly personal about it, in [his] desire that things shall change, that order shall be brought out of an existing chaos.” Based on Hoover’s heartfelt, personal vision and lots of work, an estimated 10,000,000 people in Belgium, northern France, and Poland did not starve.

Hoover also led the effort to save millions of Russians from starvation near the end of World War I, and he organized an effort to assist 100,000 Americans stranded in Europe when the war started. Hoover was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, to head the U.S. Food Administration. After the war, Republican President Warren Harding appointed Hoover Secretary of Commerce. As a result of his contributions during the war, Hoover left an enjoyable and lucrative mining engineering and business career and began a five-decade public service “career.” 5,6,7,8


Because of his reputation, Republican Herbert Hoover was elected the 31st U.S. president, to follow Republican Calvin Coolidge, in November 1928, by an overwhelming majority. Less than a year later, the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. Ever the problem solver, President Hoover took action to fix what he had inherited.

President Hoover Portrait

His overall approach, consistent with his Quaker values, stressed strengthening businesses by their increased spending for maintenance and construction instead of through direct federal intervention. He resisted establishing a federal “dole,” believing that private giving and local governments should address the needs of individuals. As conditions worsened, including unemployment continuing to rise and reach 25 percent near the end of his term, Hoover finally supported direct federal intervention. But by then, the American public believed it was time for change.9,10

Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt crushed Hoover in the 1932 presidential election. The people blamed Hoover for the Great Depression and for not resolving it. Furthermore, the bold Roosevelt’s cheerful smiles and ready access by the press were a welcome contrast to the “dour and withdrawn” and cautious Hoover. “Hoover’s name became forever linked to the most severe economic crisis in the industrialized world.”11 “An enduring irony is that long before his presidency during the Depression indelibly associated misery with Hoover, he was hailed as Europe’s savior for having masterminded relief in the wake of World War I.”12

Humanitarian: Part 2

At the start of World War II, and at the request of exiled Polish government leaders, Hoover and his privately created Polish Relief Fund provided food to 300,000 Polish children affected by Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland. After the war, former president Herbert Hoover and then president Harry S. Truman connected. Even though they differed ideologically, a friendship evolved over two decades, ending with Hoover’s death at age 90 in 1964. Truman passed at age 88 in 1972.

In 1945, Truman appointed Hoover to resolve the post–World War II food crisis in Europe, which resulted in recommendations to aid war-ravaged countries and reduce U.S. food consumption. At Truman’s request, Hoover led, beginning in 1947, the first Hoover Commission, charged with reorganizing the government’s executive branch. Also in 1947, Truman approved renaming the then-named Boulder Dam, on the Colorado River, the Hoover Dam.

Following the Korean War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Hoover to lead a second Hoover Commission, with this one focused on responsibilities of the federal government. He worked on this assignment for two years and, as usual, accepted no compensation.13,14,15

Cited Sources

1) Ruth, A. 2004. Herbert Hoover. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications.

2) Wikipedia. 2019. “Herbert Hoover.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Hoover ,
accessed May 1, 2019.

3) Ruth, A. 2004. Herbert Hoover.

4) Wikipedia. 2019. “Herbert Hoover.”

5) Ruth, A. 2004. Herbert Hoover. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications.

6) Stanford. 2011. “Waging a Kinder Cold War.” Stanford Magazine, March/April. https://stanfordmag.org/contents/waging-a-kinder-cold-war, accessed December 15, 2019.

7) Walch, T. and D. M. Miller. 1992. Herbert Hoover and Harry S. Truman: A Documentary History. Worland, WY: High Plains Publishing Company.

8) Wikipedia. 2019. “Herbert Hoover.”

9) Ruth, A. 2004. Herbert Hoover.

10) Wikipedia. 2019. “Herbert Hoover.”

11) Ruth, A. 2004. Herbert Hoover. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner Publications.

12) Stanford. 2011. “Waging a Kinder Cold War.” Stanford Magazine, March/April. https://stanfordmag.org/contents/waging-a-kinder-cold-war, accessed December 15, 2019.

13) Ruth, A. 2004. Herbert Hoover.

14) Walch, T. and D. M. Miller. 1992. Herbert Hoover and Harry S. Truman: A Documentary History.

15) Wikipedia. 2019. “Herbert Hoover.”

Image: Hoover, Wikipedia

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