Customer Reviews: The Unbound Prometheus: Technical Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to Present
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on November 29, 2000
The Unbound Prometheus was published in 1969, so it is not exactly the latest call about economic history since 1750. But Landes makes a very good job at summarizing the basics about the most important economic issues of the past two hundred years: the role of market integration and technological change in Industrial Revolution (though, for the latter, see also Mokyr's Lever of Riches), the role of free trade in the mid-19th century Europe and world, the role of after-WW1 peace settlement in causing the Great Depression, the size and impact of the Marshall Plan and other reconstruction plans after WW2. However, if you are looking for detail on any of the topics, then Landes is, perhaps, not the right book for you (on the other hand, this text is usually used as a background reading for university courses in European Economic History).
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on January 13, 2005
"It was the Industrial Revolution, writes historian David S. Landes, "that initiated a cumulative, self sustaining advance in technology whose repercussions would be felt in all aspects of economic life." He goes on to demonstrate that the Industrial Revolution had a birth, maturation, and decline. According to Landes, European nations reached these three stages of development at different intervals thus evoking varying degrees of economic progress and growth. In a work that might be deemed purely economic history, Landes treads that fine line between these two academic disciplines. As an historian, Landes has faired quite well. As an economist, however, Landes' findings could lead one to ponder: is it possible to be an expert in both fields? Landes has utilized a chronological method in an effort to answer the aged old question: why did the Industrial Revolution take place in Western Europe when it did? The author agrees that Great Britain was the initiator, or leader of the Industrial Revolution, and all other countries followed suit with varying degrees of economic growth. Landes credits England's natural geographic infrastructure of navigable rivers along with its social compatibility (this last point raised an eyebrow, as England has always been known for its rigid class divisions) as the basis for Britain's early industrialization. The chapters illustrating how England's early rural cotton cottage manufacturing developed into an intricate network of textile factories, the affects of imperial acquisitions and colonialism, and the evolutionary process of technology in the form of industrial machinery, made for a compelling read. The author also explores such social phenomenon as the Protestant work ethic, the concept of rationality, and the human tendency to control nature as contributing factors in Britain's eventual industrialization and modernization. Landes handled these more abstract interpretations admirably. The author utilizes a plethora of sources to support his argument. From the early writings of Adam Smith and Max Weber to a wide range of economic journals and published material, Landes has synthesized his argument credible. The author makes use of some tables, especially when comparing Europe's iron and steel production, however, his tendency to express his statistics in a narrative form instead of utilizing more tables and graphs can be confusing at times. The total absence of maps is another hinderance.Landes has put forth a valiant effort but perhaps his plate was too full. If the old adage of "jack of all trades, master of none," holds true here, one might mull over where Landes' strengths lie. In a book full of economic theory, sociology, demographics, statistical data and last but not least, history, is it possible for a scholar to be proficient in all these areas? For those proponents of the departmentalization of the Humanities, Landes' work will stir some reaction. As for this reviewer, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to those wishing to delve deeper into this fascinating era of European history. Keep a pot of coffee brewing.
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on August 31, 2013
I read a bookshelf full of books on economic history and the history of technology before reading this one. I rate this as as one of the best and most comprehensive. If you are going to read just one book on the subject, this should be it. If you are going to read a dozen books on the subject, start with this one. If you want to read a paper on the subject see "Technological Transformations and Long Waves" by Robert Ayres (1989) which you can find on the internet, but you will miss a great deal of interesting information and it is from a different point of view than Landes.

This book is broad in scope but shallow on the details of technology. Depth is provided in certain cases, such as the excellent, although not very technical, discussion of iron and steel.

As the title says, the focus is on Western Europe; there is little if any coverage of the U.S. and elsewhere.

I found the book stronger in the Industrial Revolution period in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century. This is common to most books on this subject because the economy and technology grow more complex. Landes however does manage to mention most of the highlights, although briefly.

While this book isn't recent, I don't know of many significant findings on the period covered.
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on May 30, 2008
Landes traces the development of technology in Europe beginning with the Industrial Revolution in Britain. He frames the context of the book by differentiating between "industrial revolution" with small letters, versus the capitalized "Industrial Revolution (IR)." The former is defined as the general shift to mechanization and inanimate power. The IR is the interrelation of many changes: 1. the substitution of machines for human skill, 2. the use of power other than by humans or animals, and 3. better uses of raw materials. "It was the ...[IR] that initiated a cumulative, self-sustaining advance in technology whose repercussions would be felt in all aspects of economic life."(3)

British textile manufacture was the first industry to convert to modern techniques of production. Britain imported 2.5 million pounds of raw cotton in 1760; half a century later this had risen to 366million pounds, and textile was Britain's most valuable product. Why cotton? Cotton was more readily adaptable to mechanization than wool and people desired the cheaper lighter material. The use of machines and the need for energy to power them gave rise to factories. There production could be concentrated more efficiently, displacing hand work in the home.

Landes attributes the IR in Britain, and subsequent technological change, to the willingness of entrepreneurs to accept the risks of development by adopting new technology. "This was a people fascinated by wealth and commerce, collectively and individually."(66) Urban merchants long ago had learned that peasants were a source of cheap labor in the manufacture of wool and this putting-out was free of guild restriction. Their experience carried over to cotton manufacture. The countryside, Landes says, was "infused with manufacture."(71)

Landes contests the theory that enclosure uprooted the farmer and forced him into the mill. Enclosure was only one of many changes which "combined to break the shackles of place and habit, assimilate the country and city, and promote a far wider recruitment of talent than would have otherwise occurred."(71) The resident population in those areas subject to enclosure actually increased. In fact Landes says, "From 1750 to 1830, Britain's agricultural counties doubled their inhabitants."(115)

The iron industry became more important, but in the early period it did not come close to cotton. Cheaper metals contributed to mechanization, the shift from water to steam power, and later, the means of transportation. Eventually coal and iron grew to enormously overshadow cotton.

Landes identifies a second industrial revolution taking place in the 1930s "by the rise of new industries based on spectacular advances in chemical and electrical science and a new, mobile source of power - the internal combustion engine."(4) A third industrial revolution may be underway due "primarily to innovations in the application of chemical and electrical science, plus advances in the generation and delivery of power."(4)

This work is a modified chapter from the "Cambridge Economic History Europe"(1965) on industrialization and technology. It's acclaim is such that it was selected as a Project 2001: Significant Works in Twentieth Century Economic History.
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on February 7, 2001
The task professor Landes have tried to achieve, and what he produces along it, is more important than that whole consistency of his work. Professor Landes makes economic history, not only describing historical processes but analyzing them with key concepts taken from basic economic theory.
Technological change creates opportunities for economic growth, but it could not explain, by itself, the whole historical process. Legal and political environment is needed to make real the economic growth that technological change makes possible. Even though, into the process, some elites and some social colectivities could see losses of power, income, and social recognition, and new models for colective and individual behaviour could upsurge. Professor Landes work explains the whole complexity of the big trends, of historical process, supported by the technological facts, the economic facts are consequence of this, and the economic theory we knew in sixties, and based on rigorous work on primary and secondary sources. His work shows, too, how the economic trends produced qualitiative consequences that economic theory could not predict because men in historical time, above all, are political entities more than economical entities. The national european states, and the national feelings, from the elites to the common man, sometimes peacefully, sometimes with social struggle, have given an specific path, and specific reactions, to the economic incentives that come from market (national and abroad) and from former regulation. The economic system and the politics produced, to each other, opportunities, setbacks, and limits.
My personal view on the value of this work is the science of history could use theoretical tools from other social sciences, but economics has to use history and its works to show better the accuracy of their concepts and method.
A very good work on economic history.
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on May 8, 2012
James Scissom's review was made as part of a critical review assignment for the Spring 2012 Economics of Technology seminar at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, taught by Art Diamond. (The course syllabus stated that part of the critical review assignment consisted of the making of a video recording of the review, and the posting of the review to Amazon.)
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on December 13, 2009
When reading this book you cannot think how old the book is. This book is great for understanding basic structure of economic systems. The book should be used to look at the methodology of thought processes which were used to come up with the theory, not the theory itself!
Very good book, and very good to expand your thought process.
Of course it is no life changing book so if you're looking for that you won't get it here.
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