The Luddites Broke Machines, But Not Out of Ignorance or Fear of the Future

Illustration of mythical Luddite leader General Ludd
Illustration of mythical Luddite leader General Ludd. Getty Images

The Luddites were weavers in England in the early 19th century who were being put out of work by the introduction of machinery. They responded in dramatic fashion by organizing to attack and smash the new machines.

The term Luddite is generally used today to describe someone who does not like, or does not comprehend, new technology, especially computers. But the actual Luddites, while they did attack machines, were not mindlessly opposed to any and all progress.

The Luddites were actually rebelling against a profound change in their way of life and their economic circumstances.

One could argue that the Luddites have gotten a bad rap. They were not stupidly attacking the future. And even when they did physically attack machinery, they showed a skill for effective organization. 

And their crusade against the introduction of machinery was based on a reverence for traditional work. That may seem quaint, but the reality is that early machines used the textile industries produced work that was inferior to the traditional hand-crafted fabrics and garments. So some Luddite objections were based on a concern for quality workmanship.

The outbreaks of Luddite violence in England began in late 1811 and escalated throughout the following months. By the spring of 1812, in some regions of England, attacks on machinery were occurring nearly every night.

Parliament reacted by making destruction of machinery a capital crime and by the end of 1812 a number of Luddites had been arrested and executed.

The Name Luddite Has Mysterious Roots

The most common explanation of the name Luddite is that it is based on a boy named Ned Ludd who broke a machine, either on purpose or through clumsiness, in the 1790s. The story of Ned Ludd was told so often that to break a machine became known, in some English villages, to behave like Ned Ludd, or to "do like Ludd."

When the weavers who were being put out of work began to strike back by smashing machines, they said they were following the orders of "General Ludd." As the movement spread they became known as Luddites.

At times the Luddites sent letters or posted proclamations signed by the mythical leader General Ludd.

The Introduction of Machines Outraged the Luddites

Skilled workers, living and working in their own cottages, had been producing woolen cloth for generations. And the introduction of "shearing frames" in the 1790s began to industrialize the work.

The frames were essentially several pairs of hand shears placed onto a machine which was operated by one man turning a crank. A single man at a shearing frame could do the work that had previously been done by a number of men cutting fabric with hand shears.

Other devices to process wool came into use in the first decade of the 19th century. And by 1811 many textile workers realized that their very way of life was being threatened by the machines which could do the work faster.

The Origins of the Luddite Movement

The beginning of organized Luddite activity is often traced to an event in November 1811, when a group of weavers armed themselves with improvised weapons.

Using hammers and axes, the men broke into a workshop in the village of Bulwell determined to smash frames, the machines used to shear wool.

The incident turned violent when men guarding the workshop fired at the attackers, and the Luddites fired back. One of the Luddites was killed.

Machines used in the emerging wool industry had been smashed before, but the incident at Bulwell raised the stakes considerably. And actions against machines began to accelerate.

In December 1811, and into the early months of 1812, late-night attacks on machines continued in parts of the English countryside.

Parliament's Reaction to the Luddites

In January 1812 the British government sent 3,000 troops into the English Midlands in an effort to suppress Luddite attacks on machinery. The Luddites were being taken very seriously.

In February 1812 the British Parliament took up the issue and began debating whether to make "machine breaking" an offense punishable by capital punishment.

During the Parliamentary debates, one member of the House of Lords, Lord Byron, the young poet, spoke out against making "frame breaking" a capital crime. Lord Byron was sympathetic to the poverty which faced unemployed weavers, but his arguments did not change many minds.

In early March 1812 frame breaking was made a capital offense. In other words, the destruction of machinery, specifically the machines that turned wool into cloth, was declared a crime on the same level as murder and could be punished by hanging.

The British Military's Response to the Luddites

An improvised army of about 300 Luddites attacked a mill in the village of Dumb Steeple, England, in early April 1811. The mill had been fortified, and two Luddites were shot dead in a short battle in which the barricaded doors of the mill could not be forced open.

The size of the attacking force led to rumors about a widespread uprising. By some reports there were guns and other weapons being smuggled in from Ireland, and there was a genuine fear that the entire countryside would rise up in rebellion against the government.

Against that backdrop, a large military force commanded by General Thomas Maitland, who had previously put down rebellions in British colonies in India and the West Indies, was directed to end the Luddite violence.

Informers and spies led to arrests of a number of Luddites throughout the summer of 1812. Trials were held at York in late 1812, and 14 Luddites were publicly hanged.

Luddites convicted of lesser offenses were sentenced to punishment by transportation, and were sent to British penal colonies in Tasmania.

The widespread Luddite violence came to an end by 1813, though there would be other outbreaks of machine breaking. And for several years public unrest, including riots, were linked to the Luddite cause.

And, of course, the Luddites were not able to stop the influx of machinery. By the 1820s mechanization had essentially taken over the woolen trade, and later in the 1800s manufacture of cotton cloth, using very complex machinery, would be a major British industry.

Indeed, by the 1850s machines were lauded. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 millions of excited spectators came to the Crystal Palace to watch new machines turn raw cotton into finished fabric.

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McNamara, Robert. "Luddites." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Luddites. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Luddites." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).