Farewell to a great historian
By Alberto Mingardi
Historians, economists, and voracious readers all over the world mourn the passing of David Landes. Landes, arguably one of the greatest economic historians of our time, was a superb writer and captivated readers all over the world. His son Richard posted an obituary of his father.
Landes is considered an exponent of the historical school that sees technological change as a pervasive phenomenon that underlies all other changes. In the words of a schoolboy famously quoted by T.S. Ashton, the Industrial Revolution saw “a wave of gadgets that swept Britain.” More soberly, Landes noted that “the heart of the Industrial Revolution was an interrelated succession of technological changes.” Of course, technology is more than gadgets (though I won’t underestimate the importance of gadgets!). It encompasses business models, approaches to organize the factors of production, marketing and distribution strategies, et cetera.
Brad DeLong has already posted Landes’ magnificent introduction to his 1969 classic, The Unbound Prometheus, that provides a most vivid illustration of the Industrial Revolution. It is quite a read. The view that the Industrial Revolution is a major breakthrough in the history of mankind is there beautifully defended–which of course doesn’t miss the fact that the Industrial Revolution itself was a part of a longer and complex history, but rather tries to explain the conditions that nurtured it. On JStor, you can find a review of the book by two other distinguished historians, R.M. Hartwell and Robert Higgs. According to Hartwell and Higgs, “Landes’ strength lies not in theory but in what we may call high empiricism.” Book reviews do not often age well, but Hartwell and Higgs actually pointed out very clearly the weaknesses of Landes’ book (which they identify in a lack of profundity in his economic theorizing) and its strengths (it is “good old economic history”), raising at the very same time interesting and still relevant questions for all students of history.