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From about 1994 to 1996 I ran a small software service at the University of Cambridge from the computer on my desk, which was called Luddite. Every now and then a 12-year-old schoolkid in America would find the site while they were searching for something to write for their class essay, and this is what I provided for them.

What's a Luddite, really?

"Luddite" is used these days to refer to someone who thinks modern technology is a problem, which I do. The word comes from the name of a social movement that doesn't have much to do with the modern usage, though.

The Luddites were active around 1810-1814, primarily in Yorkshire (following very similar and almost certainly related groups a fews years earlier based around Nottinghamshire). They were organised secretly because of government persecution.

The Luddites opposed certain trade practices associated with early capitalism in the weaving industry, most notably:

  • wages around starvation level

  • wages in goods instead of in money, which exacerbated poverty because the goods couldn't be sold at their nominal value

  • reduced quality of finished products (yes, there's lots of evidence that they really cared about this)

  • employment of untrained people including women and children in jobs that had been legally reserved for skilled men

Not all employers did these things: the Luddite struggle was an attempt to make the worst employers behave as well as the others.

At the time that the Luddite revolution started, the new practices were illegal, but the government was very definitely on the side of the employers: the law was ignored at first, and then gradually but effectively changed in the employers' favour.

The Luddites are famous for smashing machinery. They would assemble in large but well organised gangs, disguised, and get rid of the new large looms which an employers were using as an excuse to reduce quality and prices. They'd threaten the owners with repeated action and personal injury, but they didn't in fact harm the owners in the riots. The Luddites did perpetrate one murder and one attempted murder, separately from the riots, and the murder seems to have been the main cause of the movement's decline. On the other hand, several Luddites were killed by loom owners and police, and the murder was partly out of revenge for the killing and probably torture of two Luddites.

Since the Luddites were organised secretly, I don't think we know whether it was because of their Christianity that they didn't want to hurt the owners, or whether they were making sure the owners got no public sympathy, or whether they were scared of the social disruption that would come if they killed people. The events make all three motivations plausible, and I suppose all three were there.

The main difference between the original and modern usages of "Luddite" is that the real Luddites were objecting to work practices and laws, not technology. They smashed frames because it was a very effective way of scaring the capitalists without hurting them.

There was very little new technology involved for the Luddites to object to, even if they'd wanted to: we're only talking about extra-large looms and cropping shears, not automation or big factories or steam power. But technology was being used as one excuse for a social reorganisation that was devastating to most people in the north of England. There were other, political, causes of industrial change that were more important than the technological causes: most obviously, the effects of the revolution of 1688, and the English aristocratic reaction to the French Revolution, which allowed the government to demonise its ideological opponents as "Jacobins".

The Jacobin tag apparently prevented opposition in the House of Commons. Byron made an interesting speech in the Lord's about Luddism: the full text is in Hansard.

Further reading

I don't have time to write a lot about this now, but a good thing to read is Luddism: a revolution that failed by Laura Salvadori and Claudio Villi.