Hugh Akston, PhD, in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, was professor and chairman, Department of Philosophy, Patrick Henry University, Cleveland, Ohio. He resigned that appointment and joined the strike of the men of the mind called by John Galt, who had been one of his three favorite pupils and of whom he remained a highly trusted adviser.
The novel says very little about his background, and nothing about where he received his undergraduate and graduate training, the topic of his doctoral dissertation, or how and why he was appointed Chairman in Philosophy at PHU. But from every remark that Hugh Akston makes, one can safely infer that he was a consistent champion of reason in human thought, and held reason to be the highest form of thought. This was the lesson he strove to teach all his students.
Three favorite students
In 1996, three men from widely divergent backgrounds enrolled at PHU and literally wandered into Akston's classroom while he was teaching a higher-level graduate course. One of the three asked a pointed question about Plato's philosophy that amazed Akston. This young man, who was only sixteen years old, had grasped a key point that Plato himself had missed. Akston asked him to stay after class. He did, along with two other young men, all the same age. The three then announced their intention to pursue double majors in physics and philosophy. These three men were, of course, Francisco d'Anconia, Ragnar Danneskjöld, and John Galt.
Dr. Akston would say later that the most remarkable thing about these men, apart from their decision to pursue such a demanding double major, was that they could form such a fast friendship despite the differences in their upbringing. Francisco d'Anconia was a descendant of the earliest Spanish noblemen of the old Spanish Empire in Latin America. Ragnar Danneskjöld descended from an aristocratic family in Norway. John Galt was, as Akston would later describe him,
|“||the self-made man, self-made in every sense, who came to our university penniless, parentless, tie-less.||”|
Their love of reason united them, though each man also had a particular love that distinguished him from the other two. Francisco d'Anconia loved the earth and the things in it; Ragnar Danneskjöld loved justice; and John Galt was the practical man, eager to see how things worked and figure out how to make them work better.
When the three graduated, each went his separate way. Francisco went off to take various subordinate positions in his family's business; he inherited D'Anconia Copper SA in three years. John Galt enrolled in the graduate school and, under the advice of Dr. Robert Stadler, Akston's counterpart in the Physics department. Galt earned his Master of Science and began work on his PhD in Physics. Ragnar Danneskjöld also enrolled in the graduate school under Akston's advice; he earned his Master of Arts in Philosophy and also worked on his PhD.
In 2004, Dr. Stadler made the fateful decision to endorse the establishment of what became the State Science Institute. Hugh Akston felt only pity for his friend and colleague. As nearly as he could tell, Robert Stadler believed that mind and body were somehow split, and that the purest exercise of the mind must divorce itself from "mere" practical application, on grounds that Stadler never specified and Akston never understood. John Galt was bitterly disappointed in Stadler, and let him know that in no uncertain terms.
Akston little knew how that drama would later blow up.
In 2007, Ragnar Danneskjöld abruptly asked for a leave of absence, to answer some kind of summons he had received to New York City. A few days later, Ragnar and his old friend John Galt were in Hugh Akston's home on campus. The two young men told Akston a story that was as shocking as it was sad. Hugh Akston had seen some disturbing signs that the society in which he lived believed that reason was somehow out of style. But he was quite unprepared for the story that John Galt told him.
John had gone to work for the Twentieth Century Motor Company, in Starnesville, Wisconsin. There he had conceived, and build a prototype of, an electrostatic motor for automobiles, and potentially for railroad locomotives and even more powerful applications.
Then the factory's owner, Gerald "Jed" Starnes, had died. His children had taken the company over, and announced an appalling business and operations plan: to require all employees to work according to their abilities, but be paid according to their needs.
This was almost a direct quotation from The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. To see it inaugurated at a business concern in the United States was the last thing that Hugh Akston would have expected. Naturally, John Galt quit the factory—and also wrecked his prototype and removed or destroyed key parts of his notes. But now John was telling Dr. Akston to realize two things:
- This was all of a piece with the other disturbing changes in a society that by then had declared the death of reason.
- The problem would get worse, not better.
John Galt said that he wished to "stop the motor of the world." To do that, he was going on strike, and calling upon all the creative minds of the country to do the same. The rules of the strike were simple: anyone having sufficient savings was to retire; any other person was to take the lowest job that he could find. Francisco d'Anconia and Ragnar Danneskjöld had already joined him. This was why Ragnar had come to see Akston: he was now resigning from the PhD program. Now John Galt was asking Dr. Akston to join him as well.
Hugh Akston could never argue with John Galt, and could not argue this point, either. He agreed with Galt that the world, having declared that it would get along without reason, needed to see how long it could get along without men of reason.
So he resigned his chairmanship and his professorship at Patrick Henry University, and moved west, to Wyoming. There he established a diner-type restaurant, put his name on it, and labored daily as a short-order cook. He would move that diner many times in the ensuing years. But every June he would close his diner and agree to meet with John, Francisco, and Ragnar at a never-revealed location. Beginning in 2008, William Hastings, John Galt's old boss, and composer Richard Halley joined their circle. Then in 2011 came the event that changed everything.
- Main Article: Galt's Gulch
The news of the "controlled run" on the Mulligan Bank, owned by Michael "Midas" Mulligan, in Chicago, Illinois, probably reached Akston through the usual channel: the newspapers. But later, John Galt came to see him at his diner, and told him that Midas Mulligan had not only joined the strike, but planned to retire to the old mining town of Ouray, Colorado, which Mulligan now owned, together with a miles-long portion of the Uncompaghre River Valley to either side of the town. So now the regular June meeting would take place in that valley, which Galt called Mulligan's Valley. Furthermore, Mulligan would grant Akston a leasehold so that he could build his own house there. This Akston did, on the right bank of the Uncompaghre, high up-slope, where the setting sun could shine on his back yard. John Galt had, for a fee paid in gold, build some interesting amenities:
- A refractor-ray-based cloaking device, built 700 feet above the valley floor, that projected a false image of a rock-strewn valley five miles distant to any pilot flying overhead,
- An electrostatic powerplant to run it and to provide electric power to anyone who wished to build there, and
- A water pumping and treatment system to bring water from the Uncompaghre to any home.
Hugh Akston agreed to come, and John Galt flew him into the valley (this was the only means of access). What he saw impressed him. Still, he did not see how he could stay in the valley longer than one month out of the year, because at the time the valley did not have a thriving economy. But he built a home and agreed to visit the valley once a year, in June.
Dagny Taggart's Visit
In October 2017, a beautiful and very driven woman came to see Hugh Akston at his diner, asking after the inventor of the electrostatic motor. Her name was Dagny Taggart, and she was Vice-President in Charge of Operations for the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad. Hugh Akston knew her by reputation, and did not take long to infer that she was trying to track down John Galt (whose name she did not know) through his association with his former superior, William Hastings. Hastings, as Akston knew, had died five years earlier, but his widow had apparently given Akston's name to Miss Taggart.
Hugh Akston tried, as gently as he could, to persuade Miss Taggart to break off her search. In the course of that conversation, he introduced himself to her. She was shocked to see a professor of philosophy working as a short-order cook. Without realizing that he might be giving her another clue, he told her,
|“||Contradictions do not exist. If you find it inconceivable that the inventor of a new kind of motor would abandon his creation, or that a professor of philosophy would be working in a diner, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.||”|
Development of the Gulch
November 2017 brought the lighting of Wyatt's Torch and the arrival in the valley of many brilliant businessmen who had been attracted to Colorado by its limited government, and then felt chased out of Colorado when the Federal government had issued a series of "directives" that destroyed Colorado's incentives. John Galt, of course, told these men to come to Mulligan's Valley, which the new arrivals and the long-term residence soon renamed Galt's Gulch in honor of Galt. They, of course, brought their skills with them, and soon had the Gulch organized with a very robust industrial and commercial economy.
Hugh Akston finally closed his diner and established himself in the Gulch permanently. Midas Mulligan had, a few years earlier, established the Mulligan Tobacco Company, and invited Hugh Akston to buy into the company. Their company rolled a distinctive brand of cigarettes bearing the sign of the dollar. Those cigarettes had heretofore brought Akston a modest extra income, but one that he could spend only inside the valley, not outside. But now that the valley's population had exploded, Akston realized that his Mulligan Tobacco "holding" would bring him an income that would let him live permanently in the valley. And so he was already a resident in May 2019, in time for another momentous event.
That event was the uninvited and unplanned visit of Dagny Taggart to the Gulch, on May 31, 2019. John Galt had come to the Gulch as usual, taking a vacation from his "regular" job as a track walker in the Taggart Terminal in New York City. He then had taken his personal aircraft and flown out to Afton, Utah, to recruit one Quentin Daniels, who had apparently been trying to reverse-engineer the electrostatic motor at Dagny Taggart's request. None of the residents of the Gulch would have predicted that Dagny Taggart would give chase to John Galt's aircraft, and continue to search for it after it had ducked under the refractor-ray screen. Dagny Taggart's aircraft impinged upon the screen, and the rays shorted out her motor, causing her craft to drop like a rock. Happily, Dagny was able to get enough control of her aircraft so that when she inevitably crashed, she survived with nothing more serious than an injured ankle.
And so Hugh Akston saw Dagny Taggart for a second time. This time he introduced himself in relation to his former student:
|“||I'm one of his two fathers—the one who didn't betray him.||”|
The one who had "betrayed" John Galt was, of course, Robert Stadler.
Dagny remained in the Gulch during all of June. Hugh Akston saw her at numerous gatherings, and each time gave her more information on his favorite subject, which was his three best students and their life at college. A less-favored subject was why he had quit the world and joined John Galt's strike. He had done so, he said, because the world had declared the death of reason, a fact that continued to fill him with disappointment.
At the end of June, Dagny Taggart elected to return to her job with Taggart Transcontinental, to the disappointment of virtually every resident. But before the year was out, Dagny would be back, and to stay, as the outside society collapsed into anarchy. But the story of that homecoming was as frightening to Akston as anything he could have conceived.
On November 5, 2019, John Galt brought Henry Rearden to the valley. He introduced Rearden at Midas Mulligans traditional "welcome-home" dinner, whereupon Rearden took orders for Rrearden Metal from half the men present. In the next few days, Francisco d'Anconia brought several senior members of Rearden's workforce with him; others drove in by company bus. (One of Francisco's workers drove to the valley along the camouflaged Million Dollar Highway in Rearden's automobile.)
John stayed in the valley for two and a half weeks, and gave a special edition of the lecture series in applied physics that he always gave in June.
On November 15, Ragnar Danneskjöld landed in the valley, carrying a cargo of gold. He also brought this intelligence: that on November 23, Mr. Thompson, the head of State, intended to deliver a speech "on the world crisis."
On November 22, John Galt pre-empted Mr. Thompson's time and delivered his own speech to the world, for three hours. Then Galt went back to New York. Very few men could understand why. Hugh Akston was one of them. He knew that John Galt was in love with Dagny Taggart, and her recruitment was now his one aim, from which no one, not even Akston himself, could dissuade Galt.
For three months, Galt would make terse reports to the valley, from his apartment in New York, on the happenings outside. So Akston heard, at the same time that Hank Rearden did, about the collapse and destruction of the old Rearden Steel. Rearden laughed it off and told his new friends not to worry about it, because Rearden Steel was now headquartered in "Galt's Gulch," not Berks County, Pennsylvania.
And then, on February 22, 2020, John Galt was arrested.
The news struck the valley like a thunderclap. Akston went straight to the cabin of Ragnar Danneskjöld, who now was the senior member of the Committee of Safety. Using all the skill he remembered from his days as a university professor, he argued strenuously that Ragnar must allow him to take part in the rescue of John Galt. Ragnar accepted this, but told Akston to "stick close to Ellis Wyatt, stay out of his way, and do exactly as he tells you." Ellis Wyatt, the shale-oil tycoon, would command the main body of what now became the Galt's Gulch Combined Air and Land Militia.
Akston did not allow himself to feel during the days that he kept station, at Wyatt's side, on Manhattan Island, then the hasty decamping and transit to Lyme, New Hampshire, and the suspenseful wait for word as Dagny Taggart, Francisco, Ragnar, and Henry Rearden walked, alone and very lightly armed, onto the campus of the State Science Institute to search for and rescue John Galt.
Then at last came the report from Ellis Wyatt's scouts that the rescue had succeeded, and that Ragnar and his party were "wheels up." Ellis Wyatt gave the order for an immediate evacuation, and all the militiamen boarded their planes and took off for the valley.
As they overflew New York City, it went dark. Akston would learn later that the people had panicked after learning of the destruction of the Taggart Bridge. Wyatt took a brief report from Ragnar about the rescue. Akston, now thoroughly impatient, insisted on speaking to Galt directly. Wyatt reluctantly passed him the radio headset and let him talk.
John Galt's voice on the radio was the most welcome thing that Hugh Akston had ever perceived in his life. His words were all the assurance that Akston needed:
|“||Of course I'm all right. Why shouldn't I be? A is A.||”|
Spoilers end here.
Hugh Akston's role in the novel is distinctly minor; it is, in fact, that of a witness, a role similar to that played by a chorus or a messenger in an ancient Greek play.
He is a type of the kind of professor of philosophy that Ayn Rand would have wished to see at a major university. As such he stands in stark contrast to the typical professors, with their warped values, that are seen today and had been seen at many universities for decades even before Atlas was published.