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David Landes, Class of 1938

David S. Landes, a distinguished Harvard scholar of economic history, saw tidal movements in the rise of seemingly small things. He suggested that the development of eyeglasses made precision tools possible. Maybe, he said, using chopsticks helped Asian workers gain the manual dexterity needed to make microprocessors.
In his 482-page “Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World” (1983), Professor Landes, who died last month at 89, examined the growth of the industrial age through the history of timepieces, tracing their origin to medieval European monasteries; monks, he wrote, needed something to tell them when to gather for a regular round of group prayer.

To Professor Landes, the development of timepieces — more than steamships — drove the industrial age by molding the very culture of capitalism. Factory owners, for example, awarded watches to punctual workers, while workers bought watches to make sure they were not being misused by the factory clock.

Professor Landes was preoccupied by the importance of culture in shaping economic and social progress or stagnation. His most influential work, “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor” (1998), answered the question posed in its title (a play on that of Adam Smith’s classic work) by pointing to the importance of the Protestant work ethic and European attitudes toward science and technology.

Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in 2012, acknowledged Professor Landes as an influence. “There are superior cultures and ours is one of them,” Mr. Romney wrote in his 2010 book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness.” “As David Landes observed, ‘Culture makes all the difference.’ ”

Professor Landes’s views lay behind a controversial remark Mr. Romney made in July 2012 at a campaign fund-raiser in Jerusalem. In a speech in which he mentioned “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” Mr. Romney suggested that a superior culture explains why Israelis are more economically successful than Palestinians. Palestinians called the remark racist and criticized Mr. Romney for not acknowledging the trade restrictions that Israel has imposed on them.

But Professor Landes’s son, Richard, a historian at Boston University, speaking for both himself and his father, told The Boston Globe that they approved of Mr. Romney’s remarks about Israeli culture.

Richard Landes also sought to pay Palestinians a compliment by lauding their culture and praising their economic success in comparison with that of other Arab peoples. “Much of that comes from their close association with the Zionists,” he said of Palestinians.

Professor Landes was often lumped with the branch of academia and politics known as neoconservativism, partly for his praise of the European model of development over those of other cultures. But his positions were not always predictable.

He split from conservative economists by questioning their view that free trade is always good for development. And even though he thought colonialism was not to blame for the stagnation of former colonies in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, he compared Columbus’s atrocities against indigenous people in the New World to Hitler’s Holocaust.

Richard Landes said that his father died on Aug. 17 in Haverford, Pa., where he lived, and that his health had failed since his wife, the former Sonia Tarnopol, died in April. Besides his son, survivors include two daughters, Jane Foster and Alison Fiekowsky; eight grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

David Saul Landes was born on April 29, 1924, on the kitchen table of his parents’ home in the Seagate neighborhood of Coney Island in Brooklyn. His father, Harry, was a real estate investor.

As it happened, he had been taking mail-order courses in cryptanalysis, and so he was assigned to the Signal Corps. He worked on deciphering Japanese messages about the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. He later worked on a history of German preparations for the invasion of Normandy.

After being honorably discharged, he returned to Harvard to work on his doctorate. His dissertation became his first book, “Bankers and Pashas: International Finance and Economic Imperialism in Egypt.” He received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard in 1953.

He also pursued his studies at Columbia University and taught there from 1952 to 1958. While there, he was a member of the Society of Fellows, which supported interdisciplinary studies, and in 1957-58 he was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He then joined the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley, where he was a professor of history and economics until 1964. That year he wrote a letter to The New York Times criticizing the protests known as the free speech movement, which he called “the most serious assault on academic freedom in America since the McCarthy era.”

He joined Harvard in 1964 as a professor of history and went on to hold appointments in political science and economics as well. Since 1987 he had been a senior fellow of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, which was created as an alternative to the Ph.D. degree for exceptionally qualified candidates. At his retirement, in 1996, he was Coolidge Professor of History and an emeritus professor of economics.

In more than a half-dozen books and scores of articles, Professor Landes’s writing was often as light as his subjects were heavy. Reviewing his 2006 book, “Dynasties: Fortunes and Misfortunes of the World’s Great Family Businesses,” for The Times of London, Christopher Silvester described the writing as pithy, thoughtful and sprightly. The book offers 13 sketches of tycoons, including Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and Armand Peugeot.

In one scene Nathan Rothschild, of the legendary financial family, is hard at work at his desk in London. A peer of the realm is brought in. Rothschild, intent on his ledgers, invites him to take a seat. Offended, the visitor blusters about his high standing. “Take two seats,” Rothschild says.

Published in New York Times, September 7, 2013.