Luddites and the Original Rage Against the Machine

The following is reprinted from Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again Hate all that newfangled technology? Someone may just call you a Luddite. The origin of the term dates back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Here's how the whole thing got started:

It all started with the weavers. For centuries, the weavers and lace makers of Nottingham, England, were some of the most respected artisans in the world. But the invention of the power loom and other machines, which produced fabric much more quickly and cheaply than the hand-weavers, put them out of business. Just to survive, a lot of them started working for miserly wages at the factories that produced cheap and inferior cloth they hated. But they simmered with rage at the factory owners who appropriated their life's work - and the machines that helped them do it.

WHOOPS! All of the sudden, factory looms started to break down. At first, just a couple. Then a few more. When asked what had happened, the workers would just shrug and attribute the damage to the mythical Ned Ludd. In fact, the disgruntled ex-workers were already meeting in private to plot their revenge. In the early months of 1811, they began sending menacing letters, signed by General Ned Ludd, to Nottingham factory owners, warning of dire consequences if factory conditions and wages didn't improve. Some of the bolder Luddites showed up in person to make their demands. Intimidated, most factory owners complied. Those who didn't found their expensive machines smashed, by the dozens, in after-hours Luddite attacks.

THE POWDER KEG IGNITES The rebellion leaked to nearby British regions. The first Luddites had been strictly nonviolent, venting their anger only on the hated machines. But in Yorkshire, the owner of Rawfolds Mill, aware of worker unrest at his factory, had prepared for an attack on April 11, 1812, by hiring private guards. Two men were killed in the clash. Seven days later, the Luddites killed a mill owner in the region, William Horsfall. The violence didn't end there. On April 20, an angry mob of thousands attacked Burton's Mill in Manchester. Like the Rawfolds mill owner, Burton knew trouble was coming and had hired private guards who fired on the crowd and killed three men. The furious Luddites dispersed, returning the following day and burning down Burton's house. In clashes with the military (who rushed into the fray) and Burton's guards, a total of 10 men were killed.

THE UPRISING COOLS DOWN A police crackdown ensued. Scores of leaders and rank-and-file Luddites were arrested and tried for their crimes. A lot of men were hanged; others were imprisoned or exiled to Australia, which put an effective end of the immediate uprising. There were further sporadic outbreaks of violence, but by 1817 the Luddite movement ceased to be active in Britain. Of course, the Luddites were right all along: the hated machines were making their jobs obsolete. These days, only a tiny fraction of the world's cloth is made by hand. And machines make almost every article that is found in the modern home, from shoes to electronics to furniture.

The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again. The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this sequel gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsight, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas. Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute

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