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Death to Machines?

LONDON – At the start of the Industrial Revolution, textile workers in the Midlands and the North of England, mainly weavers, staged a spontaneous revolt, smashing machinery and burning factories. Their complaint was that the newfangled machines were robbing them of their wages and jobs.

The rebels took their name, and inspiration, from the apocryphal Ned Ludd, supposedly an apprentice weaver who smashed two knitting frames in 1779 in a “fit of passion.” Robert Calvert wrote a ballad about him in 1985: “They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy/ That all he could do was wreck and destroy,” the song begins. And then: “He turned to his workmates and said: ‘Death to Machines’/They tread on our future and stamp on our dreams.”

The Luddites’ rampage was at its height in 1811-12. An alarmed government sent in more troops to garrison the disturbed areas than were then available to Wellington in the Peninsular War against Napoleon. More than a hundred Luddites were hanged or transported to Australia. These measures restored peace. The machines won: the Luddites are a footnote in the history of the Industrial Revolution.

Historians tell us that the Luddites were victims of a temporary conjuncture of rising prices and falling wages that threatened them with starvation in a society with minimal welfare provision. The Luddites, however, blamed their misfortune on the machines themselves.