Technology Impact on Henry Adams

Technology Impact on Henry Adams

Born February 16, 1838 into great privilege, Henry Brooks Adams was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He was the grandson of John Quincy Adams, formerly the sixth President of the United States. Henry embarked upon an educational journey of complexities and confusion, fraught with many twists and turns. Adams understanding of education has more to do with experience than with formal schooling. In The Education of Henry Adams, written by Henry Adams, the novel serves as a chronicling of insights and experiences that shaped Adams’ perspectives during his lifetime. He became disillusioned and disconcerted with the political landscape, the death of his wife and sister, the slavery horrors, the evolution of Christianity, and his tenure at Harvard College. Insomuch, he gained a deeper appreciation and understanding of the technology force that remained a mystery to him until his death on March 27, 1918.

Christianity & Technology

During Adams’ lifetime, Christianity and technology were unexplained forces that intrigued him. Seemingly, both forces have a direct correlation with respect to time. Two critical symbols, the Virgin and the dynamo, denoted time and philosophy, as opposed to a particular place. According to Chapter 25, the Virgin represented the unity that characterized the Church during the Middle Ages.1 This unity provided focus and clarity in defining man’s moral purpose. Such foundation rendered comfort in the familiar, yielding a pillar of strength and safety. Church symbols were representative of God’s love for man. In contrast, the dynamo, a generator for producing electricity, represented modern technology or science, serving as impetus to diverse contemporary philosophies.1 Although Adams did not regard technology; he believed that science was replacing religion as the dominating force in the lives of mankind. In his Chapter 33, Dynamic Theory of History, Adams purported that religion, the Church

1 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918) Chapter 25.

magnetic force, had been replaced slowly throughout the nineteenth century, by the technological force.2 Predictably, he saw a future embroiled with great technological change and chaos that mankind could not escape; they can only manage it by embracing and developing monumental intellect. People must struggle to maintain control over scientific advances. Adam believed that mankind would need to make a dramatic increase in intellect just to deal with all of the scientific data arriving in the twentieth century. In truth, mankind has lost its innocence along with its unifying faith, thus finding itself in a materialistic world, worshipping the dynamo.2 Although the Christianity and technology were initially reviewed as polar opposites, Adam later reevaluated these forces of unity and multiplicity to be the same.

Technology Observations

During the Paris Exhibition of 1900, Adams became exposed and enamored with the observations and cauldron of technology assembled at the exhibit.1 Adams was lured back daily, trying to understand it all. Being fascinated with a world new technology that had emerged in recent years, Adam yearned for more. In viewing various dynamo technological forces, such as electricity, telephones, automobiles, x-rays, and radioactivity, Adam became more perplexed concerned about the rapid acceleration of mankind. He saw that the dynamo would shake Western civilization just as surely as the Virgin had changed it 800 years before.1 Being overwhelmed with many forces was a kind reminder how societal changes evolve, thus leaving mankind excited, yet bewildered. Samuel Pierpoint Langley, aeronautical pioneer, guided Adams through much of the Exhibition. Although Langley was a physicist who explained things in functional terms, Adams wanted more of an intricate understanding. “[I found myself] lying in the Gallery of Machines; my historical neck broken by the sudden irruption of forces

2 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918) Chapter 33.

totally new.” 1 Hence, the exhibit represented a great unraveling of 19th-century understanding. Lamenting, Adam is concerned with the blind spot of the 20th century, by denying the evitable technological mystery. Adams remarked that mankind could count on such certainties as “Unity, Continuity, Purpose, Order, Law, Truth, the Universe, God; science takes these away and replaces them with “Multiplicity, Diversity, Complexity, Anarchy, Chaos.” 3

Henry witnessed more scientific phenomenon at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. During this time, Adams discovered a disdain for the Midwest because of its smoky and dirty suburbs; “Evidently, cleanliness was not to be the birthmark of the new American.” St. Louis, he concluded, is “a third-rate town of half-a-million people without history, education, unity or art.” 4 In light of this, he was still impressed by the surrounding electricity displays. “The world had never witnessed so marvelous a phantasm a glow half so astonishing long lines of white palaces, exquisitely lighted by thousands on thousands of electric candles, soft, rich, shadowy, palpable.”4 Majestically, this was the third exposition (Chicago, Paris) that had intrigued Adams.

Technology Effects

To gain a better perspective of Adams’ amazement, a person had to live in an era without technology. As Adams became older, he experienced the pressure of time. He felt the need to “account to himself for himself somehow” and “invent a formula of his own for his universe.”4 Adams claimed he is not looking for absolute truth but merely “a spool on which to wind the thread of history without breaking it”; this spool became his Dynamic Theory of History.4 He saw unity in medieval Christianity. God is one: The cross, the chalice, the Gothic cathedral, and the Virgin all are one.5 In the new science, he saw multiplicity. Education in the new era

3 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918) Chapter 31.

4 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918) Chapter 32.

5 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918) Chapter 26.

represented complexity, even confusion, which he viewed as necessary and positive. “The older the mind, the older its complexities, and the further it looks, the more it sees, until even the stars resolve themselves into multiples; yet the child will always see but one.5 Adam mentioned a nation of “twenty-million-horse-power,” indicating the beginning of a new age; the horsepower of the motors in a single city will surpass this number within a few decades.6 At the pinnacle of his existence with such dramatic change, Adams reassessed his life and history. A paradox emerged; the height of knowledge is the abyss of ignorance.6 Essentially, Adams described that a person really cannot know anything until he realizes that he knows nothing. Values were reversed, as the old knowledge was found inadequate. With this epiphany, Adams wrote, Dynamic Theory of History, as a means to makes sense of the technological evolution. Regretfully, Adams believed that his formal education in the classics, history, and literature, was considered relevant at the time; however, he did possess the scientific and mathematical knowledge needed to grasp the scientific breakthroughs of the 1890s and 1900s.6

Diverse Perspectives

Internationally, the United States had garnered more of a political presence. Returning from Paris, Adams was amazed as to the differences in the country’s perspectives. On January 6, 1904, he reached Washington, where the differences astonished him because he had never before seen his country think as a world power. Historically, Washington was an iconic representation for politics, frustration, and even corruption. Ultimately, Adams settled in Washington because it was the center of political action, in which Adams thrived on politics. The cities of Europe represented a mixture of values. In 1858, Adams visited Berlin to study law, but it was not yet known for its impending renaissance. At this time, Germany was unsanitary, representing

5 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918) Chapter 26.

6 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918) Chapter 28.

the German character that was drab, oppressive, and dictatorial. Conversely, Paris and Rome were inspiring both aesthetically and spiritually. As a result, Adams spent many summers in Paris. Chiefly, London was the stimulus that shaped Adams’ education and his historical viewpoints. Ironically, Adams shared his negative English stereotypes, starting in Chapter 12. “The English mind was one-sided, eccentric, systematically unsystematic and logically illogical. The less one knew of it the better.”7 Surprisingly, Adams carried residue of a family resentment for the English from the American Revolution. During the American Civil War, the resentment was further intensified by social and political conditions in London. Nevertheless, his heritage and his concepts of legal justice were fundamentally British. For Adams, London represented a repository of diverse values. With Adams’ love for complexity, London was the perfect for him to explore the perplexities of Christianity and technology, maturing into an educated man indeed.


Adams gained a deeper appreciation, but he never fully understood the technology force that remained a mystery to him until his death on March 27, 1918. The Education of Henry Adams is ironic because the more Adams learned, the less he understood. What began as a voyage of discovery ended in “The Abyss of Ignorance.” With time comes great change that propels society forward for new challenges. Since forces were inevitable, such challenges and changes were not to be feared but to be embraced. Emphatically as described by Adams, it was imperative that man developed a leap in intellect to manage such technological advances that perhaps may be fully understood in the future. Therefore, Adams stated it well, ‘Mankind could count on such certainties as “Unity, Continuity, Purpose, Order, Law, Truth, the Universe, God”; however, science would remove these certainties, only to replace them with “Multiplicity, Diversity, Complexity, Anarchy, Chaos.”3

7 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1918) Chapter 12.

Works Cited

Adams, H. (1918). The Education of Henry Adams. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

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