Today, a nineteenth-century intellectual struggles with
the twentieth century. 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.
Our second president, John Adams,
sired a dynasty. His son John Quincy was also president,
and his grandson Charles was a congressman and Ambassador
to England during the Civil War. In his autobiography,
The Education of Henry Adams, John Adams'
great-grandson, Henry Adams, measures himself against his
extraordinary forebears and finds himself wanting -- even
though he was a writer, congressman, and noted historian.
Adams portrays himself as a sort of everyman facing the
juggernaut of twentieth-century technology. His chapter
The Dynamo and the Virgin takes us through the
1900 Paris Exhibition. Adams was one of forty million
visitors to its eighty thousand exhibits. He was drawn
back day after day, trying to understand it all.
Adams' most important works of history had been studies
of the abbey at Mont-St-Michel and Chartres Cathedral. They'd led him to
see the remarkable impact of medieval Christianity,
centered as it was on the Virgin Mary. Now he gazed at
wholly new technologies that'd sprung into being in just
a few years: dynamos, telephones, automobiles --
invisible forces of radiation and electric fields.
He realized that the dynamo would shake Western
civilization just as surely as the Virgin had changed it
in medieval Europe. Historical hindsight made him
comfortable with the twelfth century, but the Paris
Exhibition was too much to digest.
His guide through the Exhibition was the aeronautical
pioneer Samuel Pierpoint Langley. Langley was a
down-to-earth physicist, explaining things in functional
terms. But Adams was too intelligent to take
"this-is-how-it-works" for understanding. He says:
[I found myself] lying in the Gallery of Machines --
my historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of
forces totally new.
Adams didn't mention two ideas completing the
intellectual devastation -- quantum mechanics and
relativity theory. But, on a visceral level, he saw them
thundering down the road. It was clear enough to Adams,
as he listened to Langley, that Victorian confidence in
science had outrun itself.
In the end, Adams lamented the blind spot of his times,
the denial of mystery. The Virgin was the mystery that
drove the medieval technological revolution. He says,
Symbol or energy, the Virgin had acted as the greatest
force the Western world ever felt, and had drawn [our]
activities to herself more strongly than any other power,
natural or supernatural, had ever done.
The dynamo and modern science were ultimately being
shaped by forces no less mysterious. Langley didn't
understand radium or electricity any more than Adams
Technology and science left the exhibition hall changed
beyond recognition. Once the terrible implications of
quantum mechanics emerged, we realized that science, too,
is a glass through which we only glimpse the
mysteries of our being.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Adams, H., The Education of Henry Adams. New York:
The Heritage Press, 1918 (or one of the many subsequent
printings) See especially Chapter 25 and, to some extent,
the subsequent chapters.
This is a greatly revised version of Episode 131.
The two structures on which Henry Adams did the
definitive studies, the Abbey at Mont-St-Michel and
Chartres Cathedral (clipart)
of the Adams family
Drawing by Maria Zsigmond-Baca.
By permission of Peter Gordon
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.