I’ve recently decided to start blogging about my Master’s program in History and Archival Studies. I’m really glad I chose this program. Not only is it allowing me to “retool” in an area that I love, but the classes thus far have been really interesting (and comparatively cake-walk to my previous PhD).
This week in my 19th & 20th Century European History class we read The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present. The “present” for this book was initially late 1960s and has a new preface and epilogue for the re-release in 2003.
Although some of my classmates found this (very long) text to be a bit dry, I thought it was really interesting the way the author (David S. Landes) managed to assert a multi-layered argument and sustained it across its nearly 600 pages. That is not easy to do even in much shorter pieces–usually one or two threads get dropped along the way.
Rather than simply tell the story of the Industrial Revolution (which has been done 12 ways to Sunday already), Landes was interested in considering the myriad social, cultural, religious, political, economic, and geographic elements that aligned in just the right way for the Industrial Revolution to begin, not just in Western Europe, but in England specifically.
Despite the fact that Landes had several instances of poorly chosen language that belied his Brit-centric outlook (read: Imperial), I learned a great deal about the history of Western Europe through his door-stop history (TM – Dr. Joshua Goode).
According to Landes:
This new technology entailed not only the making and use of productive tools and machines, inventions and innovations, but new modes of labour organization and concentration, sometimes summed up in the term ‘factory system’.(x)
Landes defined Industrial Revolution (capitalized) as “the breakthrough from an agrarian, handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacture” (1) To his mind, the Industrial Revolution was the true beginning of modernization. And he attempts through his large tome to explain why and how the various factors necessary for this modernization just so happened to align in England first.The why and the how are important, but the reason for the multi-layered argument is because, Landes claimed, modernization required a kind of productive tension among and between each of the factors (religious, economic, cultural, etc.) to effect the Revolution. Thus, Landes attempted to examine each factor in situ as it were.
After writing the book and publishing it, receiving rather pointed criticisms, and writing a new epilog in for the 2003 release to address some of those criticisms, Landes left us with the following:
“When all is said and done, the one and best cause for hope is the increase of knowledge and continued material achievement. Only enhanced means can improve the lot of all, however difficult and hazardous the task. We shall not thrive by ineptitude. We have to keep trying. We must choose life. And that means continued industrial revolution” (565).
Reading Landes’ book left me with two impressions, which should not really be able to go together. 1). His sustained examination of all the factors seemed somewhat tautological. That is, today looking backward, it seems perfectly obvious that these various factors would have to play together in just such a away as to keep humans innovating and experimenting. But, 2). The obvious attitude of Britain’s supposed cultural superiority did much violence to his argument, weakening it significantly.
However, for me, the value of the book was not in his argument about the Industrial Revolution, but in the history that lives in his explication of the various factors. He described and explained what was happening economically, religiously, and so on and in so doing, I gained a great perspective of what was happening in Western Europe from 1750 to the 1900s. For someone who did not take more than the requisite histories classes in my secondary and even college education, this explication was especially useful and gave me a broad view of Western development and influence.