David S. Landes, May his memory be a blessing

This last Saturday afternoon, August 17, 2013, my father, David Landes died in Haverford PA. The following is a brief obit to which I will add when I have more time.

He was the beloved husband of Sonia T. Landes, who died on April 12, 2013, after 69 years of marriage.

He was the father of Jane Landes Foster, Richard Allen Landes and Alison Landes Fiekowsky, grandfather of eight and great-grandfather of nine.

Sylvia Landes (née Silberman) gave birth to David on April 29, 1924. Harry Landes was her husband, and he immigrated to New York from Husi, Romania in 1904.

David and Sonia met and fell almost instantaneously in love in Seagate, New York when they were 14 and 15 years old. They married when they were 19 years of age and were inseparable forever thereafter.

David had a childhood hobby of decryption (a passion ignited by a reading of Poe’s “Gold Bug”), and therefore served in the Signal Corp. of the U.S.Army in World War II, decrypting Japanese messages. He become a Second Lieutenant with a field promotion in May 1944, the highest army rank in the Landes family until his granddaughter Aliza became a captain in the IDF.

Professionally, he served as a Junior Fellow at Harvard University, then at Columbia. His work focused on entrepreneurship and economic development. Asked to write the section of the Cambridge Economic History on the Industrial Revolution, that morphed in the 1960s into his first major work, The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present, his definitive study of the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

He began teaching at Columbia University, and after a year at the Center for the Study of Behavioral Sciences in Palo Alto, he went to UC Berkeley. He came to Harvard University in 1964 where he remained throughout his subsequent career, retiring in 1997, as the Coolidge Professor of History and Professor of Economics, bridging the disciplines of history and economics.

In the late 1960s and 70s he became an astute and avid watch collector, known to makers and devotees of watches and time keeping. That passion led to the writing of his most innovative work, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (1983).

In a sense, his entire oeuvre was dedicated to answering the question “why the West?” (or more specifically, how is it that the West generated a culture of economic development that most other cultures have difficulty imitating?) His students and family would joke that his course on economic history was unofficially entitled “The West and the Rest.” 

He was, accordingly, admired and denounced for being a Eurocentric historian, a perspective increasingly considered not politically correct, even as the evidence for the uniqueness of the West continued (and continues) to pile up.

His Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some are so Poor (1998) embodies his approach to the importance of culture in contributing to either economic development or poverty.

He served as Chairman of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East in the 1970s. He was devoted to Judaism, the Jewish people and the land of Israel, a legacy continued by his descendants.

He was an avid squash player, coming in second in the B-Class of the West Coast championship in 1963, and, after coming to Harvard, prided himself on his cunning in challenging and sometimes beating the top four members of the Harvard Squash Team.

His children are sitting shiva in Philadelphia at the Fiekowsky house on 438 Ballytore Road, Wynnewood, PA 19096 from Tuesday through Thursday, August 20-22, and at Richard’s house on Thursday at 8 Priscilla Road in Brighton, MA until Monday morning August 22-26. Donations may be made in his name to Harvard Hillel.

17 Responses to David S. Landes, May his memory be a blessing

  1. SerJew says:

    My condolences.

  2. E.G. says:


  3. Robert Schwartz says:

    May the Eternal One comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

  4. mika. says:

    My condolences, Richard.

  5. Arnold Roth says:

    Your admiration for your father ob”m and his life of achievement shines through. Would that all of us merited children who take such pride in the lives of those who came before them. May his memory remain a blessing for you and those who come after you through the generations to come.

  6. Ed Beck says:


    Esther and I send our condolences to you and your family at this difficult time. May both your parents’ memories be a blessing and source of strength and inspiration to all who knew and loved him as your Dad’s work with APPME and in academics was an inspiration to so many. Baruch Dayan Emet.

    Ed and Esther Beck

  7. DavidS says:

    So sorry for your loss.

  8. Cosmic X says:

    המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון ןירושלים.

  9. […] As some readers may already have heard, David Landes passed away on August 17. The New York Times has not seen fit to publish an obituary, but here is one by Landes’s son Richard. […]

  10. Jean tabel says:

    Votre post est un émouvant et magnifique hommage à la vie de vos parents.

    Mes pensés de soutien et réconfort vous accompagnent dans cette épreuve.

    Jean Tabel

  11. Gabrierlle Brenner says:

    My deepest condolences.

  12. A. Jay Adler says:

    My condolences. A fine remembrance of your father. I think this often of my parents, now gone, from Paradise Lost:

    a grateful mind
    By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
    Indebted and dischargd;

  13. […] 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 […]

  14. Jonathan says:

    My sympathies and condolences.

  15. I read his book “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor” in English and Chinese for the last 13 years. I am still getting insights from it. I will be reading it for the next 13 years

  16. Armando D says:

    It was an honor to read several of his books.
    My deepest condolences

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