The word ‘Luddite’ is defined by the Oxford Dictionary thus: “A member of any of the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, especially in cotton and woollen mills, which they believed was threatening their jobs (1811–16).” It also offers a more contemporary definition of Luddite as this: “derogatory: A person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology: ‘a small-minded Luddite resisting progress.’”
The early days of the Industrial Revolution in early 19th-century Britain created much upheaval and angst amongst workers in what had been until then labour-intensive and well-entrenched industries. Quite suddenly, machines and means of mass production were replacing labour and expertise that had been traditionally hand-made. Millers, weavers, blacksmiths, craftspeople of all stripes – all of these trades were hard hit by the bewildering, alienating mechanization and factory systems of the Industrial Revolution sweeping the land.
It started in Nottinghamshire in March 1811. A group of textile workers protested the new machines that were making their work obsolete. Specifically, it was a group of stockingers who made stockings using a stocking frame who were the initial protesters. The new, mechanized frames could do the work of five stockingers, which did not require the skill once needed to make stockings, so cheaper, less skilled labour could be used. The stockingers insisted the new frames made poor quality stockings, but the course of progress was relentless. Protests grew more violent across northern England, culminating in an incident outside Manchester in April 1811 in which three protesters were killed after a mill owner ordered his men to shoot on a group of 2,000 protesters.
Ned Ludd was the leading figure of this new movement, with the protesting workers his ‘Luddites’. He was said to have smashed two knitting frames in a fit of rage, reportedly after having been beaten by his bosses. Also known as "King Ludd" or "Captain Ludd," he was said to be an imposing man with an "unusually pale face." Ludd became the chief focus of the British government’s frantic efforts to quell the unrest and riots.
For 200 years, he has become the icon of contrarians and those who disparage progress that destroys the traditional. Our own Information Revolution has its share of Luddites who bemoan the ironic breakdown in communication that has occurred due to the incessant reliance on information technology. For some, the word "Luddite" has become richer, more meaningful, with the Smithsonian website commenting, “The word 'Luddite' is simultaneously a declaration of ineptitude and a badge of honor.”
However, Ned Ludd very probably didn’t even exist. The story of him smashing the knitting machines was never independently verified. There was a similar story of a young man called ‘Ludnam’ who hammered machines at the insistence of his father, which puts the original Ludd tale into serious doubt. And it seems that Ludd’s reputation ‘grew’ only because whenever protesters were accused of smashing machines they would jokingly taunt authorities by claiming that “Ned Ludd did it.” Even manifestos and protest letters almost always signed by "Ned Ludd" are considered suspect, as their signing was never corroborated by credible witnesses.
Mythical folk hero he may have been, but Ned Ludd’s enduring mystique will continue to inspire contrarians and skeptics of whatever ilk, and for (or against) whatever changes may occur in society. Change may be inevitable, but for Luddites it holds true that change for the sake of change is not always progress.