JOIN EHA

DONATE

David S. Landes, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. ix + 566 pp.

Review Essay by Paul M. Hohenberg, Department of Economics, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. hohenp@rpi.edu

Economic History’s Greatest Story, Never Told Better

Let me put my cards on the table at the outset: this is the book I would like to have written. From its basic argument to its style, from the broad range of its scholarship to the tenacity with which Landes pursues the story in the details of production techniques, I admire almost everything in the book. Most of all, it is a model of argument, clear yet subtle, strong without being dogmatic. Little wonder The Unbound Prometheus has been in print continuously since 1969.

It is worth recalling the genesis of the book. The core of it appeared in 1965 as an extended (390 pages in total!) chapter in Volume VI of the Cambridge Economic History of Europe (CEHE), probably responsible by itself for making this a double volume. Yet even this earlier version was much delayed, first by the editors’ request that Landes bring the story at least as far as 1914, length be damned, and then by the bug-a-boo of collective volumes, that the slowest ship (chapter) in the convoy sets the pace for all. The 1969 book made the material accessible to students, among others (it appeared as a paperback from the start), and allowed Landes to bring the story forward to the then present. The Preface includes the author’s intention to revise the old material fully, notably devoting more attention to neglected countries, but that hope has not been fulfilled (yet!). Of course, Landes’s recent Wealth and Poverty of Nations (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998) will be judged by many readers to offer more than full compensation.

The 1969 book gave the reader a good deal beyond what was in the CEHE “chapter,” but not without some cost. The magnificent bibliography appended to the end of Volume VI is now scattered in the many footnotes and correspondingly harder to use. (These footnotes, by the way, are often masterful little essays and should by no means be glossed over.) On the other hand, the added Introduction is hardly dated at all in its discussion of how development has historically begun. One finds prefigured many of the themes and concepts that have made the name of other economic historians since then. Joel Mokyr’s macro-inventions and micro-innovations, Franklin Mendels’ proto-industrialization, Jan de Vries’ industrious revolution, E. A. Wrigley’s organic versus mineral economy, E. L. Jones’ European miracle – these come easily to mind. At the other end, Landes added almost 180 pages – and a Landes page is always full – on the twentieth century (ca.1914-1965), as well as a (revised) Conclusion that matches the Introduction in strength and thoughtfulness.

Given the original task Landes had taken on, the core chapters, those that appeared in 1965, are closely circumscribed in their coverage. Many aspects of development – the book’s preface mentions agriculture, demography, and transport – would be assigned to other authors. Here the concern was with industrialization as such and with technology in particular, though not to the exclusion of the finance, organization, and regulation of production. The wealth of detail and the tenacity with which Landes digs into the story, using statistics but always looking under and behind them, and unafraid of technical and scientific specifics, make the book sometimes heavy going, despite the superb clarity of the presentation. Similarly, although the writing is masterful, many students – and not just they – have found their command of language(s) stretched to and past the breaking point.

When one gets to the interwar and postwar chapters of the book, the emphasis changes. It is not quite clear why Landes undertook to cover broader issues of development, macroeconomic stability, and policy here. Perhaps a part of the reason is that the technological story became less compelling, indeed often depressing, especially in the interwar years. There were some high spots to be sure, such as radio and motor cars, but most industries saw only limited progress. Whereas productivity grew in the nineteenth century largely through the addition of more productive capacity to the existing stock, after the Great War overall efficiency was more often boosted when excess capacity forced the closing of the most obsolete plants. Even postwar recovery and growth up to the mid-60s mainly called for renewing the damaged or worn-out capital stock and catching up with American best practice. As we now know, the impact of microelectronics and other Third (?) Industrial Revolution technologies would take a long time to make themselves felt in the productivity statistics. It remains true, however, that extended discussions of financial instability in the interwar, and of aid, trade liberalization, and planning after 1945, do not quite fit in with the rest of the book, well done as they undoubtedly are.

For Landes, development as experienced in Europe owed its principal thrust to the development and adoption of new technology, a view that puts him pretty squarely with the New Growth Theorists and their emphasis on knowledge and human capital. Landes did not neglect natural resources, but put entrepreneurs at the heart of the analysis, whether looking at Britain’s initial industrialization, at emulation in continental countries, or at the later comparative performance of the various national economies. Rationality may well have prevailed everywhere, but some rational styles of enterprise, notably bets on new technology, worked better than others most of the time. Knowledge itself being portable and ultimately public, the critical factor was willingness on the part of business decision makers to devote resources to acquiring it and to accept inherently risky change. This thesis is pursued in industry after industry, with arguments and counterarguments pitilessly confronted with available evidence, itself always probed and cut down to size. But Landes also looks at the whole, at industrial structure. Thus, British retardation in the later nineteenth century involved both lagging performance in such industries as steel making and a reluctance to shift resources out of mature industries and into faster-growing sectors (which happened to be more knowledge-intensive).

Landes’s thesis and method, to whose subtlety I cannot do justice here, bring up the issue of the book’s influence, since a principal criterion of selection for the Project 2000 set of review essays is the work’s “significance.” Surely, no EH.NET subscriber can have gotten very far in the study of economic history without engaging with Prometheus. Yet the work appeared even as the cliometric revolution was gathering strength. Is it far-fetched to argue that a good deal of the New Economic History, at least that devoted to Europe, can be seen as a critique of Landes, both his thesis and his method, on the part of economists? [I do not suggest that Landes stood alone, of course; his book was part of a large conversation that included many he cited or who cited him or wrote concurrently.] To be specific, much of the New Economic History fell in with the economists’ tendency to set as their goal “explaining” whatever happened as the working of rational actors in well-behaved markets. It was thus impatient with social or non-market determinants of performance, to which Landes gave considerable weight.

For all the work and ingenuity lavished on the period since Landes published, I wonder how many scholars truly feel that our best understanding of European industrialization today owes more to the work of the “new” scholars than to Landes and his fellow “old” practitioners. Landes himself insisted (p. 535) that his hesitation in ascribing single causes or quantifying explanations placed him on the historians’ side of the disciplinary divide. Nonetheless, it seems to this reader, at least, that the economics in Prometheus generally holds up no less well for being discreet and non-technical. The argument, as I see it, has few if any gaping holes for the critic to shoot technical arrows through. On the other hand, thirty years of hindsight allow us to ask how well Landes’s technical emphases have held up. (Let me stress that he himself did not extrapolate from the past record to forecasts or predictions.) He did not, apparently, fully sense the coming crisis in the old heavy industries, based on coal, and thus in the regions where they flourished. By the same token, there is scarcely an inkling of the new industrial landscape of Europe, including the revival and renewal of some pre- and proto-industrial regions overshadowed in the great paleotechnic wave.

The teacher of “modern” European economic history can choose whether or not to assign students The Unbound Prometheus as a text. There are both newer treatments and easier books to read. Also, many important topics are barely touched on or omitted entirely. Perhaps the best argument for not choosing Landes is that one can then take parts of it, for example from the Introduction and Conclusion, and use them to give smashingly clever lectures without the students’ realizing that their instructor is just an inspired borrower.

(Paul Hohenberg is Professor of Economics Emeritus and currently Acting Chair of the Department of Economics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He has served as editor of the Journal of Economic History and is the author, inter alia, of A Primer in the Economic History of Europe, obscurely in print since 1968. He chairs the Project 2000 committee responsible for soliciting, selecting, and assigning for review books on the list of “Significant Works in Twentieth-Century Economic History.” He thanks his colleagues and particularly Robert Whaples for their efforts.)