is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Harold Adams Innis

Robin Neill, University of Prince Edward Island

Harold Innis has been called “the first Canadian-born social scientist to achieve an international reputation” and “the father of Canadian Economic History.” He was the second president of the Economic History Association (1942-1944) and the fifty-fourth President of the American Economic Association (1951). He has been credited with joint authorship of the Staple Theory of Canadian Economic Development (W.T. Easterbrook, 967, p. 261). In a backhanded posthumous complement a Keynesian said of him that he led the Canadian economics profession down the wrong path for fifteen years.

Innis’s influence in Canadian social science was pervasive in the pre-Keynesian period. His studies of the fur trade, the cod fisheries, and the mining and forest frontiers broke new ground, and provided an economic underpinning for the Laurentian School of Canadian historians. His students, W.T. Easterbrook, Hugh G.J. Aitken, Albert Faucher, and two of the then famous four Saskatonians, Vernon C. Fowke and Kenneth A.H. Buckley, are still cited in current Canadian economic history texts. The building-of-the-Canadian-nation histories that typified the Laurentian School have lost some of their appeal. Regional and community histories are now more frequently celebrated. Close reading of Innis, and particularly of Fowke (R.F. Neill, 1999), however, shows the two to have made a greater contribution in this regard than one would surmise from reading the general texts that draw on their work.

Innis’s influence in economic history in general has been considerable. His reworking of the “vent for surplus” theory of economic development, that is the “staple,” “primary products” or “export base” theory of economic development, was extended by Douglass North in applications to regional development in the United States, and to the experience of what were then called underdeveloped countries. Subsequently it was elaborated in generalized export-base models used to describe the experience of newly industrializing countries.

Innis’s contribution to historical economics, we have to assume, was noted. His success in the profession would indicate that it was. But that sort of Old Institutional, historical theorizing fell out of fashion after the Second World War. Neither Innis’s “cyclonics” nor J.M Clark’s “non Euclidian economics” had any formal standing in the period following general acceptance of Keynesian macroeconomic theory. Nonetheless, Innis had some influence beyond economic history. His most celebrated student, Harry G. Johnson, referred back to Innis as his “greatest teacher in economics” (Johnson and Johnson, 1978, p. 234).

The studies of communication media that characterized the so-called “later Innis” were not understood by, or, better, were outside the grasp of, economists preoccupied with positivistic testing of neoclassical, neo-Keynesian, and Monetarist-New Classical hypotheses. The root of the media studies can be traced back to the work of nineteenth-century historical economists, such as J.K. Ingram, who had much to say about “the prevalent mode of thinking” that shaped the nature of economic theory in any given period (Ingram, 1888, p. 2-3). Innis’s studies of communication media were an attempt to specify one causal factor in changes in the prevalent mode of thinking. His approach gave him grounds for assessing the economics profession itself.

He was not alone in this. J.J. Spengler, whose work also emerged from 1930s discussion of the nature of economics, also adopted an “external” approach to the history of economics (Spengler, 1940). This approach has had considerable acceptance among historians of economic thought, and it has been taken up by intellectual historians in general. Indeed, it gained high fashion following Michel Foucault’s discussion of the biased information environments that he called “epistemes,” and following Jacques Derrida’s emphasis on the linguistic context of all knowledge, both of which were related to analyses of prevalent modes of thinking.

Harold Adams Innis was born on November 5, 1894, in Otterville, Ontario, the first born of William Anson and Mary (Adams) Innis. His parents worked a hundred-acre farm outside of Otterville in Oxford County. At age eleven Harold was admitted to the Otterville high school. Two years later, in the fall of 1908, he began commuting twenty miles to the Woodstock Collegiate Institute. After graduation, he taught grade school for a year and then registered at McMaster University in Hamilton at the western end of Lake Ontario. The First World War interrupted his education. Upon graduating from McMaster, in the spring of 1916, he enlisted in the Canadian Army. By Christmas his group, the 69th Battery, was on the front in France. By the end of July, Innis had been wounded and sent to England for convalescence. During his stay in England he studied for a Master’s degree through a wartime institution called Khaki College. On arrival back in Canada he passed the examination for an M.A. in Economics. Disappointment over what he had learned was a major motivation in his enrolling in the doctoral program at the University of Chicago, a Baptist institution appropriate for one raised strictly in that faith.

When Innis arrived at Chicago there was considerable dissent in the United States with respect to the tenets of neoclassical economic theory. Its fundamental assumptions were being questioned by the Institutionalist Thorstein Veblen and by his student and colleague, John R. Commons. Some of the controversy was brought to Innis’s attention by his mentors, C.W. Wright and C.S. Duncan, but his most effective contact with current economic thought was through Frank H. Knight, who was then an instructor at Chicago. Knight’s skepticism captured Innis’s imagination and drew him into a small, informal group, including Carter Goodrich, Morris Copeland, W.B. Smith, J.W. Angel, and, of course, Knight himself. Their discussions focused on the nature and implications of Veblen’s critique of received economic doctrine.

Innis returned to Canada in 1920 to take a position in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto. With the exception of its redoubtable Head, James Mavor, the Department was young and aware that it had the economics of Canada still to discover. Mavor had attempted an introduction to Canadian economic history, but had left it unfinished. C.R. Fay, the economic historian, was at Toronto in those years, and was aware that there was something to be done. He and Innis became life long friends in their mutual endeavor to see that it did. V.W. Bladen, recently arrived from Oxford, was pulled into the effort by Innis who insisted that Bladen could not understand the economics of Canada unless he personally visited every part of it.

The first fifteen of Innis’s years at Toronto were a difficult but fruitful time. He was not always understood, and, at one point, he was withdrawn from teaching a course because he pursued its subject “along too radical lines.” Still, his efforts began to produce results with the 1930 publication of his own introduction to Canadian economic history, The Fur Trade of Canada. Following the 1929 stock market crash, the Canadian Political Science Association was reestablished. Innis was deeply involved. A year earlier, with the help of the Bladens, he initiated a periodical, Contributions to Canadian Economics. The publication provided a medium for the Canadian Political Science Association, and its success in that capacity was a major factor in the Association’s decision to launch the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science. Innis’s contributions to the literature on Canadian economic history, and his involvement in the institutionalization of economics brought public recognition. In 1934 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He was promoted to Full Professor rank in 1936. He was an invited member of the Nova Scotia Royal Commission of Economic Enquiry in 1933. In 1937 he was appointed Head of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, and he remained Head until his death in 1952. From 1947 until 1952 he was Dean of Graduate Studies at Toronto, and had, in the meantime been a member of a Federal Royal Commission on Transportation. These public appointments say much for his influence on the economics profession in Canada, but they are not the end of it. He took a personal interest in the politics of the Department of Economics and Political Science at the University of Saskatchewan, which was headed by his student and close friend George Britnell. Perhaps his greatest influence was exercised through Canada’s Social Science Research council of which he was Chairman in 1945-46, and Chairman of the Grants-in-Aid Committee for its first nine years. Funds then available to assist research in the social sciences were minuscule by later standards, but none were allocated without Innis’s concurrence. He met regularly with Anne Bezanson, another sometime president of the EHA, who represented the Carnegie Foundation. Together they poured over names and projects related to social science research in Canada. In recommending reorganization of the Canadian Social Science Research Council in 1968, Mabel Timlin stated that in the beginning elaborate organization was not needed because Innis knew everyone.

For all his involvement in the institutionalization of economics in Canada, Innis did not withdraw from contacts in the United States. He was involved in the founding of the Economic History Association and the launching of the Journal of Economic History. He was the Association’s second president, and was deeply involved with the Committee on Research in Economic History, sponsored by the Social Science Research Council of the United States. It was these activities that brought Innis into close contact with American economic historians, Arthur H. Cole, Anne Bezanson, Robert B. Warren, and Earl J. Hamilton. At the same time Innis continued his interest in the general debates over the nature of economics in the United States, reviving his interaction with Frank Knight and eventually leading to his presidency of the American Economics Association in 1951. Innis has been the only president of the Economic History Association or the American Economic Association never to become an American citizen.

The lines of cleavage in the 1930s American debate over the nature of economics are now being clarified (Yonay, 1998; Morgan and Rutherford, 1998). One was drawn over the extent to which the values of elites should direct government economic policy. Another was drawn over the role of values in social science in general, but, particularly, in economics. With respect to these cleavages, Innis found himself in opposition to Frank Underhill and the socialist League for Social Reconstruction, which was active at the University of Toronto. Knight opposed the interventionist economics of the New Deal “brains trust” economist Guy Rexford Tugwell. Neither Innis nor Knight was well disposed towards the rise of Keynesian macroeconomics. Innis found it to be too interventionist given what he thought to be the unreliable state of the economics on which it was based. Perhaps it was for this reason that, from 1943 to 1947, Innis had an open invitation from the University of Chicago, where other, now famous, dissenters were gathering (Kitch, 1983).

Harold Innis died November 8, 1952. He was at the peak of his career. He had been invited to give the Beit Lectures in Imperial History at Oxford in 1949. While in England he was invited to give the Cust Lecture at Nottingham, and he spoke at the University of London. His thesis was, perhaps, not clearly presented, and not well received. Still, he continued to develop it over the succeeding years, leaving behind a body of writing well ahead of its time in intellectual history, and well off from contemporary paradigms in economics.

Selected Publications of Harold Innis: Books and Collections of Articles

A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway. London: P.S. King, 1923; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1971.

The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1930.

Peter Pond: Fur Trader and Adventurer. Toronto, 1930.

Select Documents in Canadian Economic History, Volume 1 (1497-1783), Volume 2 (1783-1885), co-edited with A.R.M. Lower. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1929 and 1933.

Problems of Staple Production in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1933.

Settlement and the Mining Frontier. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1936.

The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1940.

Political Economy and the Modern State. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1946.

Empire and Communications. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1950.

The Bias of Communication. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1951.

Changing Concepts of Time. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1952.

Essays in Canadian Economic History, ( M.Q. Innis, editor). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1956.

The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis, (introduced and edited by William Christian). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980.

Innis on Russia: The Russian Diary and Other Writings (edited with a preface by William Christian). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Selected Writings about Innis: Biographical, Bibliographical, and Interpretative

Barnes, T.J. “Focus: A Geographical Appreciation of Harold A. Innis.” Canadian Geographer. 37 (1993): 352-364.

Creighton, Donald. Harold Adams Innis: Portrait of a Scholar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

Havelock, E.A. “Harold Innis: A Man of His Times” and “Harold Innis: The Philosophical Historian.” Et cetra 38 (1981): 242-268.

Neill, Robin. A New Theory of Value: The Canadian Economics of Harold Adams Innis. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.

Neill, Robin. “Rationality and the Information Environment: A Reassessment of the Work of Harold Adams Innis.” Journal of Canadian Studies 22 (1987-88): 78-92.

Patterson, Graeme. History and Communications: Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, the Interpretation of History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Stamps, Judith. Unthinking Modernity: Innis, McLuhan, and the Frankfurt School. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995.

Additional References: Relevant to the Presented Interpretation

Ingram, J.K. A History of Political Economy. New York: Augustus M. Kelly (1888, 1967).

Johnson, E.S. and Johnson, H.G. In the Shadow of Keynes. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1978.

Kitch, E.W. “Fire of Truth: A Remembrance of Law and Economics at Chicago, 1932-1970.” Journal of Law and Economics 26 (1983): 163-233.

Morgan, M.S. and Rutherford, M., editors. From Interwar Pluralism to Postwar Neoclassicism. Durham, NC: Duke University, 1998.

Neill, R.F. “Economic Historiography in the 1950s: The Saskatchewan School.” Journal of Canadian Studies 34 (1999): 243-260.

Spengler, J.J. “Sociological Presuppositions in Economic Theory.” Southern Economic Journal 7 (1940): 131-157.

Yonay, Y.P. The Struggle over the Soul of Economics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998.

Citation: Neill, Robin. “Harold Adams Innis”. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. March 16, 2008. URL