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The Education of Henry Adams

The Dynamo And The Virgin (1900)
UNTIL the Great Exposition of 1900 closed its doors in November, Adams haunted it,
aching to absorb knowledge, and helpless to find it. He would have liked to know how
much of it could have been grasped by the best-informed man in the world. While he was
thus meditating chaos, Langley came by, and showed it to him. At Langley's behest, the
Exhibition dropped its superfluous rags and stripped itself to the skin, for Langley knew
what to study, and why, and how; while Adams might as well have stood outside in the
night, staring at the Milky Way. Yet Langley said nothing new, and taught nothing that
one might not have learned from Lord Bacon, three hundred years before; but though one
should have known the "Advancement of Science" as well as one knew the "Comedy of
Errors," the literary knowledge counted for nothing until some teacher should show how
to apply it. Bacon took a vast deal of trouble in teaching King James I and his subjects,
American or other, towards the year 1620, that true science was the development or
economy of forces; yet an elderly American in 1900 knew neither the formula nor the
forces; or even so much as to say to himself that his historical business in the Exposition
concerned only the economies or developments of force since 1893, when he began the
study at Chicago.
Nothing in education is so astonishing as the amount of ignorance it accumulates in the
form of inert facts. Adams had looked at most of the accumulations of art in the
storehouses called Art Museums; yet he did not know how to look at the art exhibits of
1900. He had studied Karl Marx and his doctrines of history with profound attention, yet
he could not apply them at Paris. Langley, with the ease of a great master of experiment,
threw out of the field every exhibit that did not reveal a new application of force, and
naturally threw out, to begin with, almost the whole art exhibit. Equally, he ignored
almost the whole industrial exhibit. He led his pupil directly to the forces. His chief
interest was in new motors to make his airship feasible, and he taught Adams the
astonishing complexities of the new Daimler motor, and of the automobile, which, since
1893, had become a nightmare at a hundred kilometres an hour, almost as destructive as
the electric tram which was only ten years older; and threatening to become as terrible as
the locomotive steam-engine itself, which was almost exactly Adams's own age.
Then he showed his scholar the great hall of dynamos, and explained how little he knew
about electricity or force of any kind, even of his own special sun, which spouted heat in
inconceivable volume, but which, as far as he knew, might spout less or more, at any
time, for all the certainty he felt in it. To him, the dynamo itself was but an ingenious
channel for conveying somewhere the heat latent in a few tons of poor coal hidden in a
dirty engine-house carefully kept out of sight; but to Adams the dynamo became a
symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to
feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross.
The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily
revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm's length at some vertiginous speed,
and barely murmuring -- scarcely humming an audible warning to stand a hair's-breadth
further for respect of power -- while it would not wake the baby lying close against its
 
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