Today we are less likely to feel awe in the presence of our machines than we are to experience what historian Jacques Barzun called “machine-made helplessness.”
Visiting the Paris Exhibition in 1900, the American writer Henry Adams saw something so remarkable he compared its influence to that of the Virgin Mary. It was a hall filled with machines – early power generators known as dynamos. Watching them at work, he “began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross,” he wrote in The Education of Henry Adams. “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.” Adams wondered if he should pray to it.
Such awe and the attendant feelings of humility it inspired in Adams were not uncommon at the time, particularly in the United States, where technological enthusiasm ran high. In the 1850s, the U.S. Commissioner of Patents was so overtaken with excitement about the country’s many new machines that he declared, “A steamer is a mightier epic than the Iliad.” A writer in DeBow’s Review opined, “The great Mississippi Valley may emphatically be said to be the creation of the steam engine, for without its magic power … what centuries must have elapsed before the progress of arts and of enterprise could have swept away the traces of savage life.” Perhaps these machines had to be viewed with awe; industrialization was such a culturally disruptive force that people had to find a way to cope with its effects. Investing supernatural powers in the machines that ushered in that revolution was one way of doing this.