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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Still Relevant After Four Decades, 19 April 2008
therealus "therealus" (Herts, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present (Paperback)
Tracking two and a half centuries' worth of economic development in Western Europe, David S Landes's The Unbound Prometheus deserves its renown. It is well-written, thorough, and dispels any number of classroom myths as it proceeds.

The work opens by looking at the reasons why the Industrial Revolution happened first in Britain, looking at the kinds of social structures and mores that existed which meant that there was a much greater free flow of ideas between the different sections and strata of society. This he contrasts with the far more rigid pecking order in continental Europe, together with the higher prevalence of poverty and poorer lines of communication - roads, canals, navigable rivers.

Britain's early lead in industry, Landes observes, ultimately transpired to be a disadvantage as early factories were crowded out by their workers' domiciles, rendering the vertical integration characterising the late developers all but impossible. Construction of better infrastructure - roads, railways - suffered similarly, as they do now, as anyone on the M25 on a Monday morning or catching a flight from any of London's airports will tell you.

There is reference to the advent and development of standardisation, first in such factors as screw threads, and later, around the 1860s, in interchangeable components manufactured by more accurate machines such as the turret lathe and milling machine. Here he makes a reference to the problems on the Gettysburg battlefield with soldiers adjacent each other holding weapons of different bores, thereby rendering the ability to share ammunition extremely limited and creating a logistical nightmare for the quartermasters of both sides. Anybody who has visited the museum at the battlefield and seen the remarkable array of carbines on display will have a measure of the problem.

Around the 1870s, the book remarks, there was a large growth in the availability of wheat and meat, a subject subsequently updated in the Epilogue, added in 2002, making reference to Malthusian predictions and especially the comments of Tim Dyson on the decline in food production globally. This is beginning to look like a done deal in 2008, a situation exacerbated by the questionable panic rush to biofuels (according to the Guardian, 20% of the American maize crop has gone to fuel this year; swathes of the Amazon Rain Forest are reputedly disappearing to make way for grain).

He not only covers technologies but also techniques, tracing management science back to Taylorism (1880s). A reminder that in addition to better materials, more efficient and effective machines, and faster communications, we need the complementary practices - OD, Lean, 6 Sigma - to maximise the benefit. In the 1890s, he points out, accounting, too, began to make its mark.

The pervading pre-WWI angst about German steel imports to the UK has further modern parallels, as does the account of post-WWI inflation (if not so much in Europe then certainly in places such as Zimbabwe). Reading this one can only imagine the fear and uncertainty. The reference to sudden transition from "peace" to war in 1914 parallels the account given by Niall Ferguson (War Of The World) of how stockmarkets plummeted on the eve of war as the penny suddenly dropped that things were about to go bad. Additionally there is a description of the bizarre money-go-round post-war of the US lending to the allies and also to the Germans so they could in turn pay reparations to the allies.

Landes constantly reminds us of the constant ability of the capitalist "system" to apparently reach its capacity, only to innovate something or some things that enable even greater growth. This has been the salvation of capitalism, confounding all prophets of doom, not only the Marxists cited by Landes but even down to Schumpeter himself, who forecast its demise even whilst singing its praises. However, he reminds us that some people paid dearly for progress: the toll on human life in the form of the mortality rate amongst steelworkers during the 19th Century was considerable. As an example, the average life expectancy of a puddler in the 1860s is given as 31 years. Back in the seventies, when I worked as a labourer in a steel foundry, the guys were full of stories of how some of their workmates had met their untimely ends (the same tendency will be found in any activity with a higher than average risk level, whether it's working with hot metal, fishing, mining, potholing, mountaineering or diving).

The early part of Chapter 7, charting the years post WWII, again recounts the flipside of economic progress in the form of the hangover of the war years lasting through to the creation of the Deutsche Mark and, more importantly, the implementation of the Marshall Plan.

The work then moves into an account of the social and political trends post war. Here it shows its age in its account of Britain's non-membership of the EEC (now the EU), also incidentally missing out on the debate of the trade-distorting Common Agricultural Policy.

Interesting, but also a mark of its age, for Landes at the time of writing the wonders of the world were small transistor radios, affordable TV sets and the IBM 360. But though the book pre-dates Moore's Law, Landes does recount the progress in terms of faster development times in innovations coupled with reductions in cost/price and increased quality, a theme continued in the Conclusion where Landes refers to the rapidly accelerating pace of change, leading to what William Baumol, amongst others, (The Free Market Innovation Machine) label the Red Queen Paradox, based on the eponymous monarch's observation (in Alice's Adventures Through The Looking Glass) that in order to stay in the same place it is necessary to run as fast as one can, but faster than that to actually keep up.

From the perspective of 1968, a year of false political revolution, and subsequently 2002 for the second edition, in the shadow of the dotcom bust, we may have been reminded of Zhou Enlai's observation that it is as yet too early to pass judgement on the impact of the French Revolution on modern history. As such it may not only be too soon to pass judgement on the impact of the digital economy, it may be too soon to judge the impact of the Industrial Revolution itself, given that one of its alleged progeny, global warming, may yet do away with us all.

The Epilogue, written for the second edition, brings us into the 21st Century and the post 9/11 controversies over globalisation (Dyson and Polaroid offshoring) and sterile debates over the pernicious effects of "the West" on other cultures (Asian, Muslim). Here again Landes makes a valuable contribution of reasoned argument to the sometimes more emotional voices often heard in these contexts. But while the apologists for the less-developed economies make excuses, the Chinese authorities, at least, have begun to redress the balance, as Landes points out.

In amongst the big picture there is some intriguing detail, including how much coal was being used at specific times, and the phenomenal growth in its use; shortages of materials for bleaching and the efforts to overcome this; and the level of, and limitations to, the use of animal and human labour. Some details that particularly resonated with me were the mention of the Silk Mill in Derby (I used to go to the pub on its site); the application of standards including the Whitworth screw threads (remembered from schooldays), and the limitations of water power - drought, cold (because it had never occurred to me before!).

I also found intriguing the liberal name-dropping of early days of future industrial giants, some still in existence, some now defunct or trading under a different name, such as Krupp, Siemens, Pilkington, Vickers, Brown-Boveri.

A couple of works I read around the same time as this one may also be of interest. The first is Douglass C North's Understanding The Process Of Economic Change, which provides a framework and vocabulary with which to help analysis of the story Landes is telling (not that Landes needs much help!). The other is Martin S Rudwick's Bursting The Limits Of Time, about, inter alia, the development of geography, geology and palaeontology around the end of the 18th Century. Like Landes, Rudwick gives an account of the effect of the French Revolution on his subject - it is interesting to compare the differences and similarities in its effects on scientists and industrialists - and gives some very concrete examples of the effects of the different societies' institutions, to borrow North's terminology.

I did have three niggles with the presentation. First the quality of the paper. The abovementioned Bursting The Limits Of Time, somewhat longer, only slightly pricier, is printed on good quality paper and the text is sharp; The Unbound Prometheus is printed on something just above blotting paper quality, and the text is blurred. Secondly, the use of apostrophe when referencing decades: 1850s doesn't need an apostrophe unless it's possessive. The editing also demonstrates something of a purple patch around Chapter 6 with words (often indefinite articles or suchlike) missing, a mention of "less mouths" where it should be "fewer", and a use of "exasperated" where "exacerbated" is intended (p369).

There may be a case to be made for a few illustrations, too. All this talk of Bessemer Furnaces and such-like is all very well for us horny-handed sons of toil, but there are many, especially in the post-industrial South-East of England, whose opportunity to see such monsters is severely limited (I personally worked on Cupola Furnaces, and only ever saw a Bessemer in school textbooks).

Nevertheless, as an economic history, this book is first class.
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