The Surprising Story of The Original Luddite

LudditeWe all know Luddites.  They proudly pronounce their rejection of Facebook and feign disgust about how they finally “broke down” and bought that awesome Motorola Razor they still carry. Maybe you are a Luddite or pretend to be because you can’t make Gmail work on your phone. So who was this Ludd and why is he the timeless symbol of rage against the machine?

My guess was that the original Ludd was probably some horse breeder that bet the farm against the future of the automobile. As it turns out, the Ludd story is not at all what you’d expect.

Legend has it that in 1779, a fed up British factory worker named Ned Ludd took his aggression out against the knitting machines he was employed to operate, smashing two of them to pieces with a hammer. In this one brazen act of defiance, he became the symbol of man’s rebellion against automation, technological displacement, the death of artisanship, and the worsening conditions of the working class.

Not long after, as the Industrial Revolution gained steam (terrible, I know) young Ned became the poster boy, quite literally, for factory worker uprisings each of which was punctuated with the destruction of machines.

The Luddites met in secret and their operations ranged from sabotage to all out warfare, including a battle with the British Army. They became so fearsome that industrialists had secret chambers constructed in their factories in which they could hide should the Luddites come knocking. Fearing that the name “Ned” lacked gravitas, his PR team apparently took to branding him King Ludd or General Ludd.

The youth that became a factory worker. The factory worker that became a symbol. The symbol that became a king. The king that inspired the “printer scene” from Office Space.

But who was this Ned Ludd really? The truth is far less inspiring.

Ned Ludd (or Ned Lud. Or possibly Ned Ludlam or Edward Ludlam) was a weaver from Anstey in Great Britain. In the late 1700’s Anstey was in the midst of an economic expansion thanks to its burgeoning hosiery industry. Ludd was a weaver employed in a factory. So unlike a hand-weaver whose livelihood was threatened by the machine, he was dependent on it for his employment. So was this the behavior of a revolutionary? Or was he more like a frustrated golfer throwing his club after a botched shot?

By one historical account the actual trigger of his rage was a whipping by the floor foreman for idleness. If that’s true he may indeed have been a righteous rebel. Especially if the ‘lazy’ charges were trumped up by his boss.  In a second account, young Ned’s destructive hammer wielding was in response to his father, a fellow weaver, telling him to “square his needles.”  Seems a bit of an overreaction but maybe “square your needles” were fighting words back then. A third and even more pathetic account credits taunting from local youths as the impetus for Ned’s hammerfest. The one thing I did not come across is any account of his participation in anything resembling an organized demonstration.

A lazy factory worker that rebelled after getting disciplined. A brat whose tantrum likely cost him and his father their jobs. A mentally unstable kid that should never have been allowed to operate heavy machinery. Not exactly the stuff of kings.

But on closer look, this story does have a true Luddite. There was a lone figure willing to throw a wrench in the wheels of technological progress. And it’s not who’d you expect.

At the time of the Ludd incident, Great Britain’s clothing industry was just beginning to benefit from the invention of the semi-automated knitting machine. The “stocking frame” was originally created by William Lee of Calverton in 1589. He showed the ability of his device to Queen Elizabeth I, hoping to obtain a patent.  Recognizing the damage this precursor to the Industrial Age would have on the kingdom’s hand-weavers, QEI rejected Lee’s application. Still Lee persisted. He improved his device by increasing from 8 to 20 needles, allowing him to work with even more refined fabrics, and tried again for a patent. And again, he was rejected by the throne.

So is our Luddite a politician (sort of) stepping in to protect her constituents from big business? More likely, the Queen was protecting her hand-weaving cronies from a new upstart.  But while the wheels of progress can be slowed by powerful interests, they cannot stopped.

Dejected but not defeated, Lee took his machines and team to France where he adapted the stocking frame to knit silk.  Years later, after Lee’s death, his stocking frame would be repatriated to the factories of Great Britain in order to satiate the people’s need for cotton hosiery. There it would be hammered to bits by the brave founder of a glorious rebellion.

So the next time an end user objects to technical progress, call him an Elizabethan.  And if he has a temper tantrum for no good reason and takes it out on a defenseless machine, call him a Luddite.

Leonard D’Avolio Ph.D., is the CEO and co-founder of Cyft, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, an advisor to Ariadne Labs and the Helmsley Charitable Trust Foundation.  He can be followed on twitter @ldavolio and his writings and bio appear at http://scholar.harvard.edu/len

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2 replies »

  1. wait, does this mean I’m in trouble because I still like my Motorola flip phone?

  2. Great piece of historical trivia, thanks for sharing! You make it sound like France is the good guys here, though but let’s remember that’s where the term “Sabotage” originated. Workers there weren’t crazy about progress either.