The Virgin And The Carburetor


“My one solid comfort,” Adams declared in May 1908, “is to have got rid of my automobile.” Disposal of the serious problems created by the automobile, which “has exploded all our nineteenth century commodities,” would not be that simple. “Our roads are little more than the old mule-tracks of the Romans. Every great city is now constructing a three-tier system: —underground; ground-level; and high-level, electric railways; and already this is insufficient.” At least in France there were good roads. “In America,” Adams wrote, “we must create them.” Moreover, “in the face of mechanical, rapid transport,—the automobile,—society has totally broken down everywhere. The roads in the country need quadrupling. In cities—like New York, the problem seems insoluble”: proper roads there would cost “some thousands of millions.” Yet, replying to an English friend who had written him about road problems in Yorkshire, Adams offered what seems to us now a futuristic solution: “the tier road. Widening will not serve. You must have tiers: —two—three—four—five, or as many as you please. The automobile must have its own roads, not on grade. … For a country like Yorkshire, one such tier road, to take off some of the most dangerous pressure, is not a violent proposal. Two, crossing the city at the angles of incidence (of traffic) would not be unmanageable. The cost ought to be figurable to a shilling. The railways have done it for half a century. With an iron-pier elevated road for mechanical transport—still more with two, running transversely over the main highways,—Yorkshire would lead the world.”

The environmental problem also concerned Adams. “On the whole, the devil is fairly harmless except in the mechanical business. Cities are now growing uninhabitable everywhere. The noise and wear are impossible. Paris is as bad as any. New York is already abandoned by everyone who can escape.” This in response to his correspondent’s complaint about the ruination of London motor omnibuses, “cracking ceilings and drowning conversation, & depreciating property.” Adams had similar doubts when he watched a trial flight of the aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1906. “If he succeeds today, as I think he will, we had better all expire at once. Life will be impossible in the country as it now is in the city.”

Adams speculated that “this running fifty-million horsepower night and day, winter and summer, at rapidly growing velocities, must end in running infinite power at infinite velocity in a given number of years, or exhausting the power itself. … we have upset the equilibrium of nature, and … nature has got to turn on us, as it does in every explosion, combustion or disease. Logically the planet itself should at last explode or burn up.” His personal solution was to “fall back on my twelfth century and worship the Virgin. Sometimes I think this the most logical thing man ever did. Certainly it was the most sympathetic.”

Adams’s conclusion: “The power we develop is too great for our minds to direct. A pneu bursts, and we go into a wall.”

Despite his apocalyptic prophecies, Adams was devastated when his nightmares came true in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic . He was booked to sail for Europe on April 20, on its return voyage. “Society sees for the first time a glimpse of itself running on its ice-berg. … The whole fabric of the nineteenth century is foundering and all our friends with it. … Only in history as a fairy tale, does one like to see civilisation founder, and to hear the cries of the drowning. …The sum and triumph of civilisation, guaranteed to be safe and perfect, our greatest achievement, sinks at a touch, and drowns us, while nature jeers at us for our folly.”

Ten days after the sinking, on April 24, his nerves strained by the catastrophe, Adams suffered a stroke. Recovering surprisingly well, he was able to return to France in 1913. He and his companions spent the summer of 1914 at the Château de Coubertin in the Cheuvreuse Valley, which they explored in a hired automobile, “running about from Bon Bon [Château de Bombon] to Chartres, and losing ourselves in mazes of roads.” But the outbreak of war in August brought an end to their touring. The bells calling up reservists, in the Adams biographer Ernest Samuels’s words, “were sounding the end of the world; it was the final Q.E.D. of all his demonstrations.” “We are done, —my civilisation and I,” he wrote from Washington in November of 1914.

Adams’s automobile adventures were over. In his last years he went for a drive every morning with Aileen Tone, his “adopted” niece and companion, in a victoria (a horse-drawn carriage so called after the queen) to Rock Creek Park, where they would then walk “far out into the dense briars and pines.” His evening bastion against the dynamo was listening to Aileen Tone singing medieval songs. Châtelain, Vidame, and Conon, the trouvères, he had said in 1914, “keep me alive. They can always talk and say something to the purpose.” Otherwise “the whole show is—what do they call it now, a movie?”