Science & Society

Luddites: The Yin to SMHTS’s Yang

Whereas the Sandy Mountain Historical & Technological Society (SMHTS) seeks to keep the history of America’s, and the world’s, industrial manufacturing technology alive, the Luddites sought the polar opposite. A group of early 19th century protesters made up of textile artisans and other displaced laborers, the Luddites damaged and destroyed countless newly-created labor saving machines during the later days of the Industrial Revolution.

Rapid industrialization throughout England at that time had left many textile craftsmen without work. New equipment like spinning frames and power looms was replacing skilled laborers, providing a faster and cheaper method of production. The Luddites, supposedly following the example of folk hero Ned Ludd, attacked the equipment and factories that had cost them their livelihood, destroying them with brute force for a six-year period between 1811 and 1817.

Though the targets were the labor-saving machines, the Luddite cause was not based on an aversion to the technology itself. Rather, it emerged from the harsh economic climate in England during and after the Napoleonic Wars. Companies with new, industrialized equipment could easily replace their (relatively) expensive skilled laborers with cheaper, unskilled laborers, leaving those who had worked for years on their chosen craft without employment or recompense.

Far from random, haphazard attacks, Luddite activities were often practiced maneuvers designed to wreak maximum destruction. The Luddites burned mills, smashed machinery with sledgehammers, and regularly clashed with the British Army. Local magistrates were rumored to have infiltrated the Luddite ranks via agents provocateur, while, on the flip side, Luddites sent anonymous death threats to—and often physically attacked—those same magistrates.

The last major Luddite act was the Pentrich Rising, an armed uprising of approximately 250 displaced workers led by Jeremiah Brandeth in June 1817.

Agricultural laborers, losing their jobs to threshing machines and similar technological advancements of the time, joined the ranks of the Luddites much later, around 1830. This second wave of Luddite activity followed a similar style as the original, textile-working Luddites’ attacks, though, obviously, focusing on different mechanical targets.

For further information, please read:

Planned future articles on Sandy Historical will expand on some of the concepts mentioned here. Please visit this page again soon for links to further reading.