The Education of Henry Adams HTML version

A Law Of Acceleration (1904)
IMAGES are not arguments, rarely even lead to proof, but the mind craves them, and, of
late more than ever, the keenest experimenters find twenty images better than one,
especially if contradictory; since the human mind has already learned to deal in
The image needed here is that of a new centre, or preponderating mass, artificially
introduced on earth in the midst of a system of attractive forces that previously made
their own equilibrium, and constantly induced to accelerate its motion till it shall
establish a new equilibrium. A dynamic theory would begin by assuming that all history,
terrestrial or cosmic, mechanical or intellectual, would be reducible to this formula if we
knew the facts.
For convenience, the most familiar image should come first; and this is probably that of
the comet, or meteoric streams, like the Leonids and Perseids; a complex of minute
mechanical agencies, reacting within and without, and guided by the sum of forces
attracting or deflecting it. Nothing forbids one to assume that the man-meteorite might
grow, as an acorn does, absorbing light, heat, electricity -- or thought; for, in recent times,
such transference of energy has become a familiar idea; but the simplest figure, at first, is
that of a perfect comet -- say that of 1843 -- which drops from space, in a straight line, at
the regular acceleration of speed, directly into the sun, and after wheeling sharply about
it, in heat that ought to dissipate any known substance, turns back unharmed, in defiance
of law, by the path on which it came. The mind, by analogy, may figure as such a comet,
the better because it also defies law.
Motion is the ultimate object of science, and measures of motion are many; but with
thought as with matter, the true measure is mass in its astronomic sense -- the sum or
difference of attractive forces. Science has quite enough trouble in measuring its material
motions without volunteering help to the historian, but the historian needs not much help
to measure some kinds of social movement; and especially in the nineteenth century,
society by common accord agreed in measuring its progress by the coal-output. The ratio
of increase in the volume of coal-power may serve as dynamometer.
The coal-output of the world, speaking roughly, doubled every ten years between 1840
and 1900, in the form of utilized power, for the ton of coal yielded three or four times as
much power in 1900 as in 1840. Rapid as this rate of acceleration in volume seems, it
may be tested in a thousand ways without greatly reducing it. Perhaps the ocean steamer
is nearest unity and easiest to measure, for any one might hire, in 1905, for a small sum
of money, the use of 30,000 steam-horse-power to cross the ocean, and by halving this
figure every ten years, he got back to 234 horse-power for 1835, which was accuracy
enough for his purposes. In truth, his chief trouble came not from the ratio in volume of
heat, but from the intensity, since he could get no basis for a ratio there. All ages of
history have known high intensities, like the iron-furnace, the burning-glass, the blow-
pipe; but no society has ever used high intensities on any large scale till now, nor can a