Greetings,

Here is my critical review from HIEU 914 Comprehensive Examination and Readings in Modern Europe,

Landes, David S. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

David S. Landes (1924-2013) was Harvard University Emeritus Coolidge Professor of History and Professor of Economics and the author of The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (1998).[1] According to the Harvard Gazette, Landes was “best-known” for this book, stating, it was an “historical treatise that explored the ways in which history and culture intersected”, thus creating conditions that permitted some nations to flourish while others suffered in relative poverty. Harvard economist, John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006), as well as other economists and historians considered this book to be a “landmark.”[2]

Furthermore, Landes authored more than 50 manuscripts, including his widely praised work, a chapter titled, Technological Change and Development in Western Europe, 1750-1914, in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe, VI: The Industrial Revolution and After (1965), as well as, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (1969), and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (1998).”[3]

The Unbound Prometheus was conceived out of his work, Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe, 1750-1914. In that work, he created four subsections 2-5, The Industrial Revolution in Britain, Continental Emulation, Closing the Gap, and Short Breath and Second Wind. These four segments created the bulk of Prometheus’s eight chapters, with the addition of chapters 6, The interwar years, and 7, Reconstruction and growth since 1945.

In Prometheus, Landes focused on the growth of technology and innovation; textiles, coal, steel, steam, electricity etc., between 1870 -1914, and 1919 -1945, examining how technology and innovation spurred economic growth and quickly changed the centuries of agrarian societies into a culture of manufacturing. Instead of landowner and tenants, employment comprised of business owners, managers, and workers. These new schemes created unprecedented wealth, condensed living and working spaces, along with, increased sickness and poverty, on a scale previously unknown.

Landes expressed these innovations were usually spurred out of necessity. For example, as the iron revolution ignited, the demand for coal forced miners to dig farther into the earth, thus, many deeper shafts filled with water. Out of necessity, mine owners pursued more efficient ways to extract the water from the shafts. This, in turn, spurred better designed water pumps, and new pump manufacturing techniques, as well as the need for redesigned / improved steam power to run the new pumps.[4]

Landes asked two fundamental questions:

1. Why did this first breakthrough to a modern industrial system take place in western Europe?

2. Why, within this European experience, did change occur when and where it did?[5]

He explained as the Industrial Revolution progressed through varied stages, there were non-proportional changes within social and economic realms. Some of these morphings gave rise to a new type of worker, one who submitted to the structured regiment of the time clock. This new dogma of the “modern” working man allowed for a “rationalization of labour” to occur. This new facet of labor consequently created a robust economy which provided upward mobility to some, but not all.[6] Furthermore, this vigorous growth helped spur “the seeds of further technological advance” thereby, giving rise to more efficient ways of manufacturing, which then opened the door to a “cluster of innovations.” [7]

Unfortunately, these clusters and their improved economies were not universal. These innovated clusters could be found in pockets across England and after that within parts of Europe; but they were not found in every facet of industry. The scales of modernization were not balanced. Landes explained, “ prime movers and spinning” could see improvements of “several thousand to one”, others, like “shoe-making” and “weaving,” might see improvements on a scale of “hundreds to one.”[8] Yet, he pointed out, “mechanization opened new vistas of comfort and prosperity,” but its disproportionate distribution of technology and wealth could be felt and seen locally as well as globally. The rise of the machine made a few men very wealthy, employed thousands at a mediocre wage, as well as devastating the livelihood of others; those not climbing on the wheel of progress, casting them into the “backwaters.”[9]

Landes suggested, there needs to be an endless industrial revolution for Europe and the rest of the growing world to maintain its ever-hungry non-sustainable Capitalist’s lifestyle. He indicated, over the last 200 years, the many facets of social life had gone through a metamorphosis, from agrarian / rural lifestyle to the newly created factory / city life, all driven by the” the complexity of economic development.”[10] Moreover, he remarked, no one will profess that the Industrial Revolution produced, even fleetingly, perfect upward mobility or created a utopia of collective possibilities.[11]

Loosely in the conclusion, almost as a second thought, Landes attempts to tie the Greek myths of Prometheus, Daedalus and Pandora, by comparing their personal hubris and tragedies, to that of the unchecked man marching unabated into advancing technologies.

He articulated how these myths and their hazards were a lens of possibilities to a mankind that is continuously seeking faster, better, and cheaper ways to develop their ongoing commercial ventures. This continuous seeking was needed to maintain their flourishing Capitalism and its material “trappings.” Moreover, it seemed, Landes’s main complaint was how mankind was plowing forward at mythical speed without taking a breath to ask whether their new ventures were harmful to society, thus, indicating mankind’s unchecked arrogance could be the very downfall of society, as well as the entire planet. [12] [13]

According to, W. Ashworth, the new chapters lack the detail Landes provides in his earlier Cambridge work, stating his earlier effort showed “a remarkable capacity to organise an immense variety of detailed knowledge…”, while chapter 7 was “somewhat less detailed”, and chapter 6 lacked over all cohesiveness.[14] Yet, Landes admitted in the Preface, that the book would take “a substantial research and writing commitment at a time when new university and personal obligations left me even less free time than usual..”[15] Thus, indicating he was aware of the books shortcoming. While Richard Tilly exclaimed [the book], “deserves to become the standard text in the field of European economic history.”[16] Moreover, W.H.B. Court indicated, “this book stands in a class by itself”.[17] And, S.G. Checkland observed, “His account since 1918 has great merit… and is certainly the best of its kind available.”[18]

Lastly, Landes, despite acknowledging his time restraints while writing Prometheus on the shoulders of his earlier Cambridge work, found the time to add a vast amount of detailed information needed to update his book through the birth of atomic power. The book is a great account of the varied Industrial Revolutions and its effects on men, wealth, and society, and should be on everyone’s reading list.

Bibliography

ASHWORTH, W. “LANDES (D. S.). ‘The Unbound Prometheus’ (Book Review).” The economic journal : the journal of the British Economic Association. 80, (317), 1970: 54-156. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2230464.

Cameron, Rondo. “The unbound prometheus: A review.” Explorations in Economic History, Vol 8, (2), 1970: 229-237. https://doi.org/10.1016/0014-4983(70)90013-6.

Checkland, S.G. “Reviewed Work: The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present by David S. Landes.” The Business History Review, Vol. 44 (2), Summer, 1970: 238-241. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3112357.

COURT, W. H. B. “Landes’, The Unbound Prometheus (Book Review).” Political science quarterly. 86, (1), 1971: 152-154. https://www.jstor.org/stable/2147379.

Landes,  David S.. . The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Reuell, Peter . David S. Landes, 89, dies. Aug 30, 2013. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/08/david-s-landes-89-dies/ (accessed 01 25, 2022).

Tilly, Richard. “Review: David S. Landes, the Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Book Review).” Journal of Social History 4, (2), Winter, 1970: 167-176 http://ezproxy.liberty.edu/login?qurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.proquest.com%2Fscholarly-journals%2Freview-david-s-landes-unbound-prometheus%2Fdocview%2F1297380762%2Fse-2%3Faccountid%3D12085.

  1. David S. Landes. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europefrom 1750 to the Present. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008),ii.
  2. Peter Reuell. David S. Landes, 89, dies. (Aug 30, 2013. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2013/08/david-s-landes-89-dies/).
  3. Ibid.
  4. David S. Landes. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008),11.
  5. Ibid. 20
  6. Ibid. 11
  7. Ibid. 11, 12.
  8. Ibid . 12.
  9. Ibid.15.
  10. Ibid. 372.
  11. Ibid. 374.
  12. Ibid. 349.
  13. Ibid. 374.
  14. W. ASHWORTH, LANDES (D. S.). The Unbound Prometheus (Book Review). The economic journal : the journal of the British Economic Association. 80, (317), (1970),155.
  15. David S. Landes. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 4.
  16. Richard Tilly. Review: David S. Landes, the Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Book Review). Journal of Social History 4, (2), Winter, 1970: 173.
  17. W. H. B. COURT, Landes, The Unbound Prometheus (Book Review). Political science quarterly. 86, (1), (197), 154..
  18. S.G. Checkland, Reviewed Work: The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present by David S. Landes. The Business History Review, Vol. 44 (2), Summer, 1970: 241.