The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the early nineteenth century who protested often by destroying mechanized looms against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt were leaving them without work.
The terms"Luddite,” “Bioluddite”,” or"Neo-Luddite” have become synonymous with anyone who opposes the advance of technology due to the cultural and socioeconomic changes that are associated with it.
The English historical movement has to be seen in its context of the harsh economic climate due to the Napoleonic Wars, and the degrading working conditions in the new textile factories; but since then, the term Luddite has been used derisively to describe anyone opposed to technological progress and technological change.
The Luddite movement, which began in 1811 and 1812 when mills and pieces of factory machinery were burned by handloom weavers, took its name from the fictive Ned Ludd. For a short time the movement was so strong that it clashed in battles with the British Army. Measures taken by the government included a mass trial at York in 1812 that resulted in many executions and penal transportation.
The principal objection of the Luddites was against the introduction of new wide-framed automated looms that could be operated by cheap, relatively unskilled labor, resulting in the loss of jobs for many skilled textile workers.
The original Luddites claimed to be led by one “King Ludd” whose signature appears on a “workers’ manifesto” of the time. King Ludd was based on the earlier Ned Ludd, who some believed to have destroyed two large stocking frames in 1779. In a situation where machine breaking could lead to heavy penalties or even execution, the use of an imaginary name was an understandable tactical necessity.
The movement began in Nottingham in 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England. Many wool and cotton mills were destroyed until the British government harshly suppressed the movement. The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding the industrial towns, practicing drills and maneuvers and often enjoyed local support. Multiple battles between Luddites and the military occurred. Magistrates and food merchants were also objects of death threats.
“Machine breaking” (industrial sabotage) was subsequently made a capital crime by the Frame Breaking Act (Lord Byron, one of the few prominent defenders of the Luddites, famously spoke out against this legislation), and 17 men were executed after an 1813 trial in York. At one time, there were more British troops fighting the Luddites than Napoleon. Three Luddites ambushed and assassinated a mill-owner and shortly after the Luddites responsible were hanged in York, the Luddite movement waned.
Historian E. P. Thompson presents an alternative view of Luddite history. He argues that Luddites were not opposed to new technology in itself, but rather to the abolition of set prices and therefore also to the introduction of the free market. Thompson argues that it was the newly-introduced economic system that the Luddites were protesting.