Landes begins carefully by defining the ways "industrial revolution" can be understood, and in so doing spotlights his subject: the change from an agrarian economy to one dominated by machine, which is a fundamental change in social orientation and the definitive turning point in man's history. Landes declines to engage with the question "is the industrial revolution good or bad?" The questions he proposes to answer are two: whey did the first breakthrough in the modern industrial system occur in Western Europe, and why "did change occur when and where it did?" He is interested in the patterns and "causes and processes of growth." (12) Landes explicitly eschews the kind of economic or historical analysis that allows for a few key factors to be distilled from the whole (554) , but in order to summarize his argument briefly, some points must be identified. Landes essentially argues that modernization and industrial growth requires at least three things: a society with sufficient ready capital and financial instruments that permit moving capital from lenders to borrowers; a group with access to that money who favor the growth of a middle class and have a concomitant preference for reinvestment in business rather than estates and honors; and finally a society which rewards "native genius" -- whether technically trained scientists or amateurs and tinkerers-- a group, although he does not say this directly, of people interested in efficiency, production, and competition as ends in themselves.
Landes works out in impressive detail the complex factors that promote or retard economic growth, from the financial policies of governments and individuals, to jerky and somewhat unpredictable industrial discoveries advancements to the political and social fears and desires that channel the development and investment of monetary, natural and human resources. Landes follows not only the "lifespan" of new technologies, but also the lifespan of technological dominance for nations. He focuses particularly on the growth of specific industries: cotton, wrought iron, trains, steel, chemicals, automobiles, pharmaceuticals. England got started first in cotton, steel and chemicals, but failed to retain her dominance, yielding it to Germany at the turn of the century because (apparently) British industrialists failed to see the need to make the costly continuous improvements necessary. He considers the distorting effects of both world wars, of the waste of resources, the following stagnation and reprisals, and also of the misdirected international economic policies that bracketed both wars. Perhaps most interesting is his analysis of the chemical industry, rising as it did from the waste products of industrial processes -- it exemplifies two problems: efficiency and fuel sources, one a mind-set, the other a fundamental limit in the placement of and conception of machinery, and both underlying the process of change across the two centuries in question. Also interesting is his use of the term "climacteric" (247), revealing an underlying "environmental," or organic model of change. Landes' arguments, first published in a chapter in the Cambridge Economic History of Europe, focus (naturally) on England, Germany, France, Belgium, Holland and glance at the United States. Landes's subject is Western Europe, but his aim is global -- one could as easily picture him writing about the trends that obtained between one ice age and the next. (One hopes that Landes met Jarred Diamond).
"The Englishman of 1750 was closer in material things to Caesar's legionnaires than to his own great-grandchildren. " Precisely because he eschews models, Landes is convincing when he addresses the changes, but not the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Landes attributes ongoing modernization to a continued entrepreneurial spirit and a continued abundance of material goods, and in exploring these things, he tells a good story.
The two questions Landes addresses seem to be the two questions of writers on technology. Why Western Europe, and what are the key factors (if any) in understanding the fundamental changes?
Where does Landes stand with regard to the other authors in this ad
hoc series? In opposition to Rostow, Landes believes that the long
trends are "optical illusion" and that more accurate picture is obtained
by looking at the price series, which show a long deflation, the
result, he believes of unprecedented productivity gains brought about by
manufacturing (233). However, he would be unlikely to agree with
Fischer that price series are the key statistic to watch. And in
sympathy with Rostow, he also see a growth model for economies. In
his handling of details -- his breadth -- he resembles Giedion, Adas ,
and Rostow, but Giedion, in particular, is "about" motion.
In this Giedion and Kern are alike -- seeing motion/simultaneity as the
key to the 20th century.