The Unbound Prometheus by David S. Landes

By | August 24, 2019

The Unbound Prometheus by David S. Landes is a work of such remarkable erudition and insight, not to mention detail that it demands of its reader concentration, stamina and perhaps pre-existing interest in its subject matter. The rewards, however, for anyone bold enough to see its project through are both immense and extensive, scattered, as they are, across almost every page of this quite monumental text.

The book’s subtitle, Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present, may sound like it prepares a broad canvas, but it does not do justice to either the breadth or the depth of this work. In this case, the present is the mid-1960s, since the book was published in 1968 and, despite the stated European focus, Professor Landes continually offers context whenever events in North America or anywhere else on the planet, for that matter, provide consequences for his argument.

Histories, even economic ones, often concentrate on politics and power. Books on development and change tend to oscillate between the statement of macro-economic data, the social context and consequence, and the policy landscape in which everything seems to be located. Trade, usually, forms the focus and charting its origins and volumes can be both informative and insightful. But, after reading The Unbound Prometheus anew, one begins to realise that there is no observable trend in any of these spheres of human activity unless technological change, scientific innovation and invention are included in the mix of our permanently partial understanding.

Landes places scientific discovery and its application at the very centre of his exploration of the history of the Industrial Revolution. It is one thing, for example, to see tables listing tonnage of steel production by country and by date: it is quite another thing to read the same data alongside detailed descriptions of the innovations that practitioners and researchers alike brought to the processes that manufactured the product. Then, having appreciated these new possibilities that innovation created, macro summaries of production and use quite suddenly become both more understandable and interpretable.

And so, by country, by era and by major industrial sector, David S. Landes examines scientific discovery and its application via technology through two centuries of change, alongside those other aspects of economic history that are always present. We thus begin to appreciate the role of certain individuals, men, usually, of science, engineering, finance and politics who conspired, competed or cooperated to institute industrial change, change that bore consequences for an ever larger proportion of the human population, for it was ordinary people who became the consumers of the products that drove industrial development. Nowhere, however, does Professor Landes fall into the trap of overstating his case. Indeed, his enduring quest for balance often understates the role of science in particular in the overall picture.

What also seems to become clear is that the United Kingdom’s initial and successful foray into industrialisation was more the result of technical innovation, rather than the application of science, married to fortuitous availability of resources. These, of course, were circumstances that could not be repeated and it appears that later developers were more, though far from predominantly, reliant upon science and research as stimuli for change, and, as a result, generated a process that was both more sustained and more successful. Put another way, later developers displayed a greater reliance on the development and use of human capital than was the case in the United Kingdom, which perhaps never learned from its competitors’ practice.

The real joy of The Unbound Prometheus for the general reader, however, is its wealth of context and insight that is woven seamlessly into the detail of its history. An example close to our own times relates to post World War II Europe. It is remarkable that in 1968 Professor Landes wrote the following in relation to the potential offered by the new landscape of cooperation that opened up in the later 1940s. “Once the war was won, efforts toward international co-operation and integration multiplied. The Americans kept pushing in this direction, partly because they were convinced that they would be the principal victims of a return to autarky, partly because they were convinced that this was the only way to put Europe back on its on feet. And there was a whole school of internationalist Europeans, led by men like Jean Monnet, who sought to achieve economic integration not only for itself, but as a means to political unification and a guarantee of peace.”

If the conclusion at the end of the passage was obvious to such a prominent and informed author at the end of the 1960s, before Britain’s accession to the European Union, or Common Market as we used to call it, one wonders why it might be that in 2014 the very notion of political integration in Europe has so suddenly become such a new idea for British politicians and people alike. On the very next page Landes offers a possible reason. “The record of British negotiations in the forties and fifties is a litany of timorous clich├ęs covering the rejection of promising but hazardous opportunities. This sin of anachronism – for a nation, there is none more deadly – and the penance is far more painful than the options originally rejected.” Thus Professor Landes illustrates that there may even be some things in the relationship that might be enduring.

These two small quotations from the book indicate how rewarding it can be to approach again a book like The Unbound Prometheus. Fifty years on, a history of economic and technological change in the industrial revolution, by virtue of the dedication, humility and percipience of its author still has much to say about the contemporary world and the forces that drive it. It’s up to us, the readers, to appreciate the connections.

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