January 17, 2013
Rage Against the Machine
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
Can technological progress be stopped? That is the question the Luddites asked 200 years ago in England. They did more than just ask the question — they tried to stop technological progress, physically. The Luddites were not particularly sophisticated in their methodology. Their main idea was to smash things. Their favorite things to smash were stocking frames. Stocking frames are machines used to knit. The first stocking frames were invented in the late 16th century. But stocking frames really came into their own at the beginning of the 19th century, with automation. That's when the industrial revolution was swinging into high gear. The new machines being built in northern England in the early 19th century were transforming the textile industry from one that required highly skilled labor into an industry that required almost no skill at all. A person could be trained to operate a stocking frame in a few hours. Knitting — once a well-paid occupation — was fast becoming a low-wage affair.
According to legend, a young kid named Ned Ludd had smashed up a couple of stocking frames some time in the late 18th century. The Luddites of the early 19th century took up Ludd’s name and cause. They began smashing up factories and, occasionally, killing people. They also wrote letters to politicians and factory owners threatening they would kill them or otherwise make serious trouble. A typical Luddite letter, this one to Henry of Leicester, reads as follows:
It having been presented to me that you are one of those damned miscreants who deligh [sic] in distressing and bringing to poverty those poore unhappy and much injured men called Stocking makers; now be it known unto you that I have this day issued orders for your being shot through the body with a Leden Ball…
(From Writings of the Luddites, edited by Kevin Binfield)
By 1813, the Luddite rebellion had become serious enough to bring out the army.
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