Who were the Luddites?

August 7, 2015 By Evan Andrews
Cartoon showing Ned Ludd, the mythical leader of the Luddites. (Credit: British Museum)
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“Luddite” is now a blanket term used to describe people who dislike new technology, but its origins date back to a 19th century labor movement that railed against the economic fallout of the Industrial Revolution. The original Luddites were British weavers and textile workers who objected to the increased use of automated looms and knitting frames. Most were trained artisans who had spent years learning their craft, and they feared that unskilled machine operators were robbing them of their livelihood. When their appeals for government aid and assistance were ignored, a few desperate weavers began breaking into factories and smashing textile machines. They called themselves “Luddites” after Ned Ludd, a young apprentice who was rumored to have wrecked a textile apparatus in the late-18th century. There’s no evidence Ludd actually existed—like Robin Hood, he was said to reside in Sherwood Forest—but he eventually became the mythical leader of the movement. The vandals claimed to be following orders from “General Ludd,” and they even issued manifestoes and threatening letters under his name.

The first major instances of machine breaking took place in 1811 in Nottingham, and the practice soon spread across the English countryside. Sledgehammer-wielding Luddites attacked and burned factories, and in some cases they even exchanged gunfire with company guards and soldiers. The workers hoped their raids would encourage a ban on weaving machines, but the British government instead moved to quash the uprisings by making machine breaking punishable by death. The unrest finally reached its peak in April 1812, when a few Luddites were gunned down during an attack on a mill near Huddersfield. The army rounded up many of the dissidents in the days that followed, and dozens were hanged or transported to Australia. By 1813, the Luddite resistance had all but vanished. It wasn’t until the 20th century that their name re-entered the popular lexicon as a synonym for “technophobe.”

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