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The Leader of the Luddites, engraving of 1812
The Luddites were a social movement of Britishmarker textile artisans in the early nineteenth century who protested—often by destroying mechanized looms—against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt were leaving them without work and changing their entire way of life.

This English historical movement should be seen in the context of the era's harsh economic climate due to the Napoleonic Wars, and the degrading working conditions in the new textile factories. Since then, however, the term Luddite has been used derisively to describe anyone opposed to technological progress and technological change.

The Luddite movement, which began in 1811 and 1812 when mills and pieces of factory machinery were burned by handloom weavers, took its name from the fictive Ned Ludd. For a short time the movement was so strong that it clashed in battles with the British Army. Measures taken by the government included a mass trial at Yorkmarker in 1812 that resulted in many executions and penal transportation.

The principal objection of the Luddites was against the introduction of new wide-framed automated looms that could be operated by cheap, relatively unskilled labour, resulting in the loss of jobs for many skilled textile workers.


The original Luddites claimed to be led by one "King Ludd" (also known as "General Ludd" or "Captain Ludd") whose signature appears on a "workers' manifesto" of the time. King Ludd was based on the earlier Ned Ludd, who some believed to have destroyed two large stocking frames in the village of Anstey, Leicestershiremarker in 1779. At that time in England, machine breaking could lead to heavy penalties or even execution, which might have led some to use fictious names for protection.

Research by historian Kevin Binfield is particularly useful in placing the Luddite movement in historical context – as organised action by stockingers had occurred at various times since 1675, and the present action had to be seen in the context of the hardships suffered by the working class during the Napoleonic Wars.
The movement began in Nottinghammarker in 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England in 1811 and 1812. Many wool and cotton mill were destroyed until the British government suppressed the movement. The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding the industrial towns, practising drills and maneuvers, and often enjoyed local support. The main areas of the disturbances were Nottinghamshiremarker in November 1811, followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire in early 1812 and Lancashiremarker from March 1813. Battles between Luddites and the military occurred at Burton's Mill in Middletonmarker, and at Westhoughton Millmarker, both in Lancashiremarker. It was rumoured at the time that agents provocateurs employed by the magistrates were involved in provoking the attacks. Magistrates and food merchants were also objects of death threats and attacks by the anonymous King Ludd and his supporters. Some industrialists even had secret chambers constructed in their buildings, which may have been used as hiding places.

"Machine breaking" (industrial sabotage) was subsequently made a capital crime by the Frame Breaking Act (Lord Byron, one of the few prominent defenders of the Luddites, famously spoke out against this legislation), and 17 men were executed after an 1813 trial in Yorkmarker. Many others were transported as prisoners to Australia. At one time, there were more British troops fighting the Luddites than Napoleon I on the Iberian Peninsulamarker. Three Luddites, led by George Mellor, ambushed and assassinated a mill-owner (William Horsfall from Ottiwells Mill in Marsdenmarker) at Crosland Moormarker, Huddersfieldmarker, Mellor firing the shot to the groin which would, soon enough, prove fatal. Horsfall had remarked previously that he would "Ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood". The Luddites responsible were hanged in York, and shortly thereafter "Luddism" waned.

However, the movement can also be seen as part of a rising tide of English working-class discontent in the early 19th century (see also, for example, the Pentrich Risingmarker of 1817, which was a general uprising, but led by an unemployed Nottingham stockinger, and probable ex-Luddite, Jeremiah Brandreth. An agricultural variant of Luddism, centering on the breaking of threshing machines, was crucial to the widespread Swing Riots of 1830 in southern and eastern England.

In recent years, the terms Luddism and Luddite or Neo-Luddism and Neo-Luddite have become synonymous with anyone who opposes the advance of technology due to the cultural and socioeconomic changes that are associated with it.

Criticism of Luddism

The term "Luddite fallacy" has become a concept in neoclassical economics reflecting the belief that labour-saving technologies (i.e., technologies that increase output-per-worker) increase unemployment by reducing demand for labour. The fallacy lies in assuming that employers will seek to keep production constant by employing a smaller, more productive workforce instead of allowing production to grow while keeping workforce size constant.

In his work on English history, The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson presented an alternative view of Luddite history. He argues that Luddites were not opposed to new technology in itself, but rather to the abolition of set prices and therefore also to the introduction of the free market.

Thompson argues that it was the newly-introduced economic system that the Luddites were protesting. Thompson cites the many historical accounts of Luddite raids on workshops where some frames were smashed whilst others (whose owners were obeying the old economic practice and not trying to cut prices) were left untouched. This would clearly distinguish the Luddites from someone who was today called a luddite; whereas today a luddite would reject new technology because it is new, the Luddites were acting from a sense of self-preservation rather than merely fear of change.

The Luddites in fiction

See also


  1. . Accessed 4 June 2008.
  2. BBC NEWS | England | Leicestershire |Workmen discover secret chambers
  3. Hobsbawm, Eric (1964) "The Machine Breakers" in Labouring Men. Studies in the History of Labour., London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, page 6. Hobsbawm has popularized this comparison and refers to the original statement in Darvall, Frank Ongley (1969) Popular Disturbances and Public Order in Regency England, London, Oxford University Press, page 260.


  • Bailey, Brian J., The Luddite Rebellion (1998), New York : New York University Press, ISBN 0814713351.
  • Binfield, Kevin. Writings of the Luddites, (2004), Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-8018-7612-5
  • Fox, Nicols. Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite History in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives, (2003), Island Press ISBN 1-55963-860-5
  • Jones, Steven E. Against Technology: From Luddites to Neo-Luddism, (2006) Routledge, ISBN 9780415978682
  • Perlman, Fredy. Against His-tory, Against Leviathan, (1983) Black and Red, ISBN 0934868255
  • Sale, Kirkpatrick. Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution, (1996) ISBN 0-201-40718-3
  • Watson,David. Against the Megamachine: Essays on Empire and its Enemies , (1998) Autonomedia, ISBN 1570270872 .
  • Hunt, Lynn, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, R. Po-chia Hsia, and Bonnie G. Smith. The Making of the West. 3rd ed. Edited by Mary Dougherty. Vol. C of Since 1740. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2009.

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