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No. 274:

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 laid off.

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 19th-century Marxism.

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 rate.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Since this episode was first aired in 1989, Dr. Kevin Binfield of Murray State University points out that 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 various forms.