We must steward modernity’s great achievement: the grid.
In The Education of Henry Adams (1918), the great-grandson of the second president, grandson of the sixth, and a distinguished author and historian in his own right described his encounter with the electrical generators displayed at the 1893 and 1900 world’s fairs. The inventions awed him. “One lingered long among the dynamos,” he wrote, “for they were new, and they gave to history a new phase.” Adams described the experience in the third person:
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.
The dynamos heralded a “consolidation of force, which ruthlessly stamped out the life of the class to which Adams was born,” he said further, “but created monopolies capable of controlling the new energies that Americans adored.” As electricity spread from urban central stations to small towns and isolated farms, America became a commercial juggernaut, no longer patrician but middle-class and middlebrow.
Perhaps the best symbol for this shift in America’s cultural and economic foundations was the home
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