Today, we watch the Luddites fight change. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The shadowy -- and perhaps
mythical -- figure of Ned Ludd is the namesake of
the Luddite movement. If Ned Ludd really lived, he
was a rebel English worker during the gathering
18th-century Industrial Revolution. The Luddites
who took his name were quite real, and they
surfaced in the early 19th century.
The free-enterprise system and the Industrial
Revolution had just grown up together with dizzying
speed. Too much change had occurred too rapidly.
Now the Napoleonic Wars, the War of 1812, and
serious crop failures were taking their toll on
England. The cost of common goods was rising just
when the new textile machines were putting people
out of work. To make matters worse, the poor
quality of the first machine-made goods turned
public support towards the craftsmen who were being
A leader, known to us only as King Ludd, arose in
the middle of this. He organized the angry workers,
and in 1812 they started smashing up textile
machinery. Rioting of this sort was a new tactic.
It'd been tried for the first time only thirty
years earlier, against both Wedgwood and the
Boulton-Watt factory. Up to now it'd been marked
with a certain restraint. When Wedgwood heard that
soldiers had been ordered to shoot at rioters, he
wrote that the idea was
... dreadful! ... I do not like to have the
soldiery familiaris'd to spilling the blood of
their countrymen ...
At first, that restraint marked the Luddites as
well. They'd select an owner and write a letter
warning him to hire people instead of machines, or
else! After a decent interval, they'd launch a
well-organized night attack on machinery -- not on
people. But it wasn't long before one owner called
in the soldiers, and a Luddite was killed. They
retaliated by murdering the owner, and soon
everyone was, in Wedgwood's words, "familiaris'd
with spilling the blood of their countrymen."
The Luddites were finally put down, not by
violence, but by the return of prosperity -- and
then only for a little while. They were replaced
soon enough by the even bloodier beginnings of the
modern labor movement -- and after that by
We look back on the Luddites with a mixed mind.
Being driven out of work by a machine is anyone's
bad dream. But can you imagine how we'd be dressed
if we all had to wear hand-woven clothes! Today, we
use the word Luddite to label someone who tries to
live in yesterday's world. But when technology
changes our lives too rapidly, it tears the fabric
of society. It's then that we need enough Luddite
in us to slow the pace of change to a bearable
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Since this episode was first aired in 1989, Dr. Kevin
Binfield of Murray State University has created an
excellent website about the Luddites:
In it he provides a detailed history of the movement
including many original Luddite writings. He also
points out the movement took different forms in
different regions, and that it appears not to have
had any single leader -- that King Ludd was folklore.
The term Ludd should be viewed merely as an eponym
that was used to characterize the movement in its
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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