David S. Landes

3 09 2013


The world has lost a truly great historian. The research of David Landes, which spanned political, economic, and technological history, was fundamentally about understanding the “Rise of the West” to global dominance. His ideas laid the foundation for the more recent literature on the Great Divergence (i.e., the attempts by historians to explain why the Industrial Revolution took place in the West rather than in East Asia or some other civilization).   Simply put, until a few centuries ago, life in all of the world’s main agricultural civilizations was pretty similar: nasty, brutish, short, slow technological progress, people surviving on the equivalent of a dollar day. Then Western Europe, followed by other parts of the world, started to take off economically.


Since the year 2000 or so, the Great Divergence has become one of the central research questions for historians. In fact, the Great Divergence has become one of the most important paradigms through which we organize information about a wide range of countries, periods, and historical topics. The big first-year World History survey course for history students at this university, which I teach, is structured around the Great Divergence. Material from Landes’s books ends up in my lectures and, one hopes, the students’ final exam papers.

Although he did not agree with all of the scholars who later published on the Great Divergence, including the California School, Landes always engaged with his critics in a very respectful way, as far as I can tell.  [By sheer coincidence, The Economist published a great explanation of the Great Divergence yesterday].

His two most important works were:

The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Cambridge University Press, 1969) and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Are Some So Rich and Others So Poor? (W. W. Norton, 1998). I personally think that anyone running for public office should be tested on their knowledge of this book.

His other important works include Bankers and Pashas: International Finance and Economic Imperialism in Egypt (Harvard University Press, 1958) and Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Harvard University Press, 1983).

I learned from his son’s obituary that Landes’s hobby was collecting watches and clocks. I’m not certain what the Landes house sounded like at noon each day—probably a cacophony of clocks making noise at the same time.

Reflections on his life and career can be  found here,  here,  and here.

Hat tip to the BHC blog.



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