x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Luddites tried in vain to stop Industrial Revolution

Their name is synonymous with futile attempts to roll back technology – and with fuddy-duddies who can't figure out how to use the iPhone.

An engineer checks communication cables in the Media Gateway lab in Ericsson's research and development center in Budapest, Hungary.
An engineer checks communication cables in the Media Gateway lab in Ericsson's research and development center in Budapest, Hungary.

WASHINGTON // Their name is synonymous with futile attempts to roll back technology - and with fuddy-duddies who can't figure out how to use the iPhone.

The Luddites were British textile artisans who 200 years ago smashed the mechanized looms they thought threatened their jobs.

They weren't the first to attack machines. They are named after a man who probably didn't exist. And their grievances weren't even with the looms themselves; they were enraged at the business owners who hired unskilled labourers to use the machines and turn out shoddy products that ruined the artisans' reputation for quality.

Their movement began in economic misery. Britain's long war with Napoleon had taken a toll. The economy was squeezed by the British blockade of Europe that cut exports and sent food prices soaring. Their livelihoods threatened by low-wage labour, the artisans began demonstrating around Nottingham in 1811.

The protests - and the machine-busting - spread across a swath of central England. Some of the Luddites swung hammers forged by a blacksmith named Enoch Taylor, who also made machinery for their adversaries, mill owners. "Enoch made them," the Luddites would say. "So Enoch shall break them."

An outraged parliament passed a law imposing the death penalty on machine wreckers - a draconian move opposed by the poet Lord Byron, who said the Luddites deserved pity, not punishment.

The government sent soldiers to restore order. At one point, the late historian Eric Hobsbawm has written, Britain had more troops deployed against the Luddites than they it had fighting Napoleon in Spain and Portugal.

Several Luddites were killed in clashes with troops. Others were hanged. By the end of 1814, the Luddite protests were over. The Industrial Revolution rolled on, replacing artisans with factory workers.