With the recent passing of economic historian David Landes at age 89, the curtain has fallen on an academic career of extraordinary historical significance. One of the all-time greats, Landes produced several masterworks, including The Unbound Prometheus and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. While these are his best known books, everything he wrote remains worth reading, from an article published in 1949 on why French society produced relatively few entrepreneurs in the 19thcentury (1), to a collection co-edited in 2012, The Invention of Enterprise: Entrepreneurship from Ancient Mesopotamia to Modern Times (chapter 14 of which is an essay on the history of entrepreneurship in the United States from 1920 to 2000 by Winthrop Group's own Margaret B. W. Graham).
I'll say more about Landes’s intellectual legacy and major publications below but wish first to recount how he influenced me long ago when I was in graduate school. At the time, the Harvard History Department required Ph.D candidates to spend the second year of the program preparing for an oral exam based on extensive readings across four different fields and three different time periods I was concentrating on early modern British history, and I did a field in medieval English history to begin to put this field in perspective. I also read American colonial history (with Bernard Bailyn, about whom more below), and for the fourth field chose Social and Economic History of Europe since 1750, which Landes presided over. I knew of him, of course, as The Unbound Prometheus was already a classic and he was reportedly an entertaining and provocative lecturer. At the time I was thinking that understanding some economic history might come in handy someday, and, hey, how hard could it be? I was about to find out.
Early in the first semester, I prepared a reading list for Landes to review. I cobbled this together from similar lists shared with other students, contemporary and in the recent past, and added a few of my own ideas. Even so, given the vast scope of the subject, I had to make a lot of choices. The field required us to be informed about several dozen countries. And, oh, by the way, if there was pioneering work being done on the economic history of the Americas and Asia (and there was) we needed to know that, too.
When I showed Landes my 15-20 page reading list, he flipped through it quickly, said it was a good start, then added I had missed important topics like social structure in Bavaria in the late 18th century. He also wanted me to expand my reading of economic theory, especially the theory of development, from Weber and Tawney forward, through Kondratieff, Gerschenkron, and Rostow. He put the fear of God into me, and I redid the list. It got longer and I plowed through most of the items on it by the end of the year.
I also sat in on Landes's lectures and attended a weekly seminar he ran for the rather large bevy of graduate students reading with him for the oral exam. It was a pretty impressive crowd, and a number went on to eminent careers in history and other fields. Landes’s seminars were extraordinarily exciting, stimulating, and fun. He knew how to work a crowd.
On the day of my oral exam, I knew I would have to go one-on-one with Landes for 30 minutes. I made sure I knew something about social structure in Bavaria and had at least a Cliff’s Notes version of the major theorists of economic development, but he never asked. In fact, for all his leonine reputation, he proved something of a pussycat. I can recall only one question, which aimed to get at what I thought about contrafactual history. This was a technique pioneered by one of Landes’s contemporaries, Robert Fogel, who had written a book arguing that the railroads, conventional wisdom aside, were not hugely important to American economic growth. Fogel attempted to prove this thesis by calculating that growth rates would have been comparable had investment continued in canals. Landes’s question was, could I offer and discuss other historical topics where a contrafactual approach might be revelatory. I don’t remember what I said, but evidently it was coherent enough to earn me a passing grade. I continue to reflect on this question from time to time, however, especially when I’m tempted to exaggerate claims for the role of an individual or any other particular factor in triggering significant historical change.
Which brings me back to Landes’s intellectual legacy, which I came to appreciate more fully after the formation of The Winthrop Group, Inc. in 1982. Along with Bernard Bailyn and Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., Landes is one of the intellectual godfathers of our firm. These great historians taught us and produced works that stimulated our thinking and validated our conviction that the past contains important lessons and helpful insights for understanding the present and (within obvious limits) indicating the future. Interestingly, they were contemporaries and friends in graduate school, and all three studied the practical effects and implications of history at the Center for Research on Entrepreneurial History at Harvard Business School. For my money, Bailyn is America’s greatest living historian, possessing an uncanny ability to ask penetrating questions and then to answer them brilliantly. Chandler dominated the field of business history and made his work relevant to executives in practice. Landes made the history of commerce, entrepreneurship, and family businesses his own. The modes of inquiry and topics of interest of these three giants have had a profound influence on Winthrop Group’s work.
1 David S. Landes, “French Entrepreneurship and Industrial Growth in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Economic History, 9 (1949), pp. 45-61.
Some Major Works by David S. Landes (1924-2013)
Reading David Landes is a great pleasure. His books are smart, imaginative, authoritative, and well written. Here is a brief guide to some of his more significant works.
1. The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (1969, 2nd edn. 2003). A seminal text for understanding the coming of the modern industrial economy, starting with technological change in the 18th century and the ripple effects on the organization of work, communities, and society. Originated in the 1950s as a contribution to the Cambridge Economic History series and, after two revisions 34 years apart, still assigned in college and graduate courses.
2. Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (1982). My personal favorite: a tale of falling in love with timepieces and uncovering the role they played in transforming pre-industrial into modern life. A wonderful book.
3. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some Are So Poor (1998). A magisterial treatment of the most fundamental question in political economy today or in any era. According to Landes, the answer has a lot to do with geography, culture, attitudes toward science and modernity, and institutions. Some critics regard the book as old-fashioned and Eurocentric. There’s nothing old fashioned about deep mastery of subject matter, careful analysis, and clear argumentation. As for the charge of Eurocentrism, Landes responded himself in the last four sentences of the Preface: “Some would say that Eurocentrism is bad for us, indeed bad for the world, hence to be avoided. Those people should avoid it. As for me, I prefer truth to goodthink. I feel surer of my ground.”
Dynasties: Fortunes and Misfortunes of the World’s Great Family Businesses(2006). In this book (and also The Invention of Enterprise), Landes returns to where he started, with an examination of entrepreneurship and the evolution of family businesses in banking, automobiles, and natural resources. His first book, Bankers and Pashas: International Finance and Economic Imperialism in Egypt (1958) had begun exploration of these topics. In Dynasties, he looks at the rise and (usually) fall of family fortunes from the Medici to the Toyodas and Schlumbergers . He also restores family enterprise to its rightful place as central