German economist Johann Heinrich von Thünen is best known for his writings on agricultural production and his model of “the isolated state.”
Economist and agriculturalist Johann Heinrich von Thünen was born on June 24, 1783, in Canarienhausen, Oldenburg, Germany. After attending agricultural college, he purchased an estate and farmed it using his own methods. He published his system in The Isolated State, which was influential for its “central location” theory of agricultural production and profit. He died on September 22, 1850 on his estate in Mecklenburg, Germany.
Early Life and Education
Johann Heinrich von Thünen was born on June 24, 1783, on his family’s estate in Canarienhausen, Oldenburg, a city in the region of Jever, near Germany’s northern coast. His father died when von Thünen was young, and his mother was re-married to a timber merchant.
Von Thünen attended school and apprenticed as a farm laborer. He received further education at two agricultural schools, one in Gross-Flottbek (near Hamburg) and one in Celle; his studies included mathematics, economics and the natural sciences. One of his teachers at the Institute of Agriculture in Celle was Albrecht von Thaer, author of Introduction to English Agriculture. From 1803 to 1804, von Thünen attended the University of Göttingen, where he read the writings of political economist Adam Smith.
Agriculture and Economics
Von Thünen married the daughter of a landowner, and in 1809, he purchased the estate of Tellow in Mecklenburg, located near Rostock in northern Germany. He had begun writing out treatises on agronomy (the science of farming methods) in 1802. Between 1810 and 1820, he experimented with new systems of profit and production at Tellow, keeping close records of his methods.
In 1826, von Thünen published the first volume of his best-known and most influential work, The Isolated State with Respect to Agriculture and Political Economy. In this study, based on the techniques that he’d used to farm his own estate, he analyzed the ideal balance between land rent and transportation costs in producing profitable crops. He proposed a model of an imaginary city in the middle of a plain surrounded by forests, with the territory divided into concentric zones (often referred to as “Thunen’s rings”). Using this scenario, he proposed strategies for planting and shipping crops to maximize agricultural production as well as profit. In his calculations, he considered the land rent of each zone and the farmers’ costs of transporting crops and goods from the outer regions to the city, as well as the reverse flow of materials from the central city out to more rural areas. Later authors have applied this “location theory” to the industrial age and to urban environments.
In his later life, von Thünen was recognized as an authority in the fields of agronomy and economics, and he was granted many honors. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Rostock and was made a freeman of the city of Teterow, near his home. In 1848, he was offered a seat in the National Assembly of Frankfurt, but he had to decline on grounds of poor health.
In 1850, von Thünen finished the second volume of The Isolated State, which outlined his analysis of the marginal productivity theory of distribution. He died of a stroke on September 22, 1850, at the age of 67, on his Mecklenburg estate. The third volume of The Isolated State was published posthumously, in 1863.