Luddites: 200 Years of Technology Innovation

Luddites. Everyone knows one. It might be your friend who is stubbornly and embarrassingly using a flip phone from the 90s, or it might be a word you use to describe your parents when you help them troubleshoot their computer… again.

Although the word Luddite has come to represent someone who fears technology or refuses to “get with the times”, the origin of the word stems from the time of the industrial revolution. Surprisingly, this old word has roots in what some would call a rather noble cause, even if we use it now as an insult, or to humorously describe the office techno-peasant. 

The Leader of the Luddites: Published in May 1812 by Messrs. Walker and Knight, Sweetings Alley, Royal Exchange. Public domain image.

The Luddites were a group of 19th century textile workers in England. Prior to the industrial revolution, the process of weaving and making fabric was often done by hand. The Luddites were often self-employed weavers and their jobs were disappearing due to automation and the adoption of labour saving devices. These new machines often made an inferior product, but they did so at a much cheaper price, ensuring their popularity among manufacturers.

Devices like stocking frames, spinning frames, and power looms, were turning the skilled labour of weavers into something that could be done by an unskilled (and much lower paid) laborer. It wasn’t a fear of the machines or technology that spurned the luddites to assemble so much as the fear of losing their livelihood. Soon, protests and the destruction of machines became a strategic action against efforts to lower wages and remove job security. Apparently, in the 19th century, negotiating your contract was a full-contact sport.

A stocking frame (a mechanical knitting machine) - Attribute to John Beniston - Wikipedia
A stocking frame (a mechanical knitting machine) – Attribute to John Beniston – Wikipedia

It is thought that the Luddite movement took its name from Ned Ludd, a young man who allegedly smashed two stocking frames in 1779 (Destroy a stocking frame—you become the leader of a movement. Break a milkshake machine—you’re just a hooligan.) Ned went on to become a mythological figure of sorts, acquiring names such as Captain Ned, General Ned, and King Ned. It was even said that he resided in Sherwood Forest, just like the stories of Robin Hood.

Some people think Ned Ludd was a real person, but many historians believe he was purely a mythical character created to support the ideals of the Luddite movement…basically, a very early version of Homer Simpson. There is evidence of a public riposte in response to a Nottingham committee against the Luddites in December of 1811, given under the name King Lud, but there is no direct evidence that Ludd ever existed.

The Luddites followed in Ned’s lead, damaging textile machinery and burning the mills where fabric was made. Their protests and attacks against machines made them heroes of the working class. The Luddites were incredibly effective in their efforts, leading the British government to deploy thousands of troops to prevent the acts of sabotage.

In 1812, the government made the destruction of a machine into a capital crime, meaning that you could be put to death for demolishing a machine that knit stockings (a severe consequence for keeping people from their hosiery, but still not the weirdest law ever passed). The combination of violent attacks against the Luddites by the military, and show trials that led to the execution or deportation of individuals involved in the uprisings, brought the Luddite movement to an end.

By Chris Sunde at en.wikipedia. - Original unknown, Public Domain
By Chris Sunde at en.wikipedia. – Original unknown, Public Domain

While the idea of smashing machines with sledgehammers to save jobs can seem laughable in this day and age, the question the Luddites raised about how human beings can co-exist with technology is one many people ask to this day, especially when it comes to artificial intelligence and advanced machines (Skynet, anyone?).

Innovations such as self-driving cars or computers that can do the work of lawyers, can lead us to question what jobs really mean. Even though 200 years have passed since the original Luddites, we are still grappling with our relationship with technology.

The industrial revolution clearly impacted the lives of everyday people, both positively and negatively. This time period gave rise to the original Luddism and the word luddite, which we still use two centuries later. Although the meaning of words change over time, one thing seems certain: whether you are a luddite throwing your printer out of an office window, or taking a sledgehammer to your computer, it is probably not the best way to ensure your job isn’t replaced by a machine.