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When 'Luddites' Attack: Destroying Machines To Save Their Jobs

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When 'Luddites' Attack: Destroying Machines To Save Their Jobs

When 'Luddites' Attack: Destroying Machines To Save Their Jobs

When 'Luddites' Attack: Destroying Machines To Save Their Jobs

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/407749357/407749360" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Today, it's an insult to call someone a Luddite. But that's not fair to the original Luddites — cloth workers who launched a war against the machines that were taking their jobs.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Computers handle lots of jobs that used to be done by people.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Travelocity and Kayak have replaced neighborhood travel agents.

BLOCK: We use TurboTax to file our own taxes.

SIEGEL: Possibly soon, the truck next to you on the highway will be driven by computer.

BLOCK: People who complain about these changes are sometimes dismissed as Luddites. But as Jacob Goldstein and David Kestenbaum of our Planet Money podcast report, the original Luddites had a point.

DAVID KESTENBAUM, BYLINE: The original Luddites are famous for smashing machines with sledgehammers during the Industrial Revolution.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: But they didn't start out angry. The people who would become the Luddites worked in the cloth business. And around 1800 in England, making cloth was a fantastic job.

JOEL MOKYR: They really worked whenever they felt like it and didn't work when they didn't feel like it.

GOLDSTEIN: This is Joel Mokyr, an economic historian.

MOKYR: They had an institution, for instance, called St. Monday. Basically what happened was that, at the weekend, particularly on Sunday, they celebrated and drank themselves into a stupor, and then on Monday, they were all hung over and didn't work. And that was known as St. Monday.

KESTENBAUM: The jobs paid well, but the fact that they paid well - that was their undoing. If you were the person paying the workers, at some point you started thinking, there has got to be a cheaper way to do this. So inventors in England created machines to spin fiber into yarn and machines to weave the yarn into cloth.

GOLDSTEIN: The workers saw this and launched a kind of underground war against those machines. They were following a mysterious general named Ned Ludd. People called them the Luddites.

KESTENBAUM: In 1811, these letters started appearing in village squares and newspapers.

GOLDSTEIN: Here's one. (Reading) To Mr. Smith, shearing frame holder at Hill Yorkshire...

Shearing frames, by the way, are machines that cut the fuzz off of cloth.

KESTENBAUM: (Reading) Sir, you are a holder of those detestable shearing frames. If they're not taken down by the end of next week, I will detach one of my lieutenants with at least 300 men to destroy them.

GOLDSTEIN: The letter is signed by the general of the Army of Redressers, Ned Ludd.

KESTENBAUM: Ned Ludd, the rebel leader, the mastermind. In fact, Ned Ludd - not a real guy.

MOKYR: Sorry to disappoint you. He never existed apparently. There are some stories that there was a man like that in the 1780s who broke a few machines, but it's very poorly documented, and most people think he was just about as historical a figure as Robin Hood.

KESTENBAUM: Somehow, having a nonexistent general in charge helped unify people. The workers sent threatening letters in Ludd's name, and if they didn't get a response, they would march on the factory.

MOKYR: They would have some people with rather primitive rifles. Many of them would have knives. Quite a few of them carried sledgehammers, and they would break into a factory, overpower any guards if any were there, and they would basically break the machinery and leave.

GOLDSTEIN: Suddenly, Ned Ludd was everywhere. Luddites destroyed knitting machines in Nottinghamshire. They burned factories in Manchester. When a factory owner walked down the street, kids shouted at him, I'm Ned Ludd. No, I'm Ned Ludd.

KESTENBAUM: The Luddites wanted Parliament to pass a law banning the machines. Instead, Parliament passed a law that made destroying machines punishable by death. The Army sent thousands of soldiers to fight the Luddites.

GOLDSTEIN: In a climactic battle, about 150 Luddites marched on a cloth factory. The owner of the factory was expecting the attack, and he had armed guards waiting inside.

KESTENBAUM: As the Luddites approached, the guards started shooting. Two Luddites were killed, and not long after, the government arrested dozens of Luddites. Some of the men got executed. They got hanged. Mokyr says that sent a message.

MOKYR: People saw what happened to the Luddites. These people were hanged in public. In fact, they made the scaffolds doubly high so that everybody could see them.

GOLDSTEIN: The industrial revolution the Luddites were fighting was one of the great events in human history. It gave us the modern world. It gave us new kinds of jobs no one could have imagined. It's tempting to shout back across history to the Luddites, trust me, things are going to get better.

KESTENBAUM: But the truth is, for the Luddites, things did not get better. Things didn't even get better for their kids. For 50 years, as England built the first high-tech economy on the planet, average wages for workers barely budged.

GOLDSTEIN: A few people made a lot more, but Bob Allen, an economic historian, says lots of people made less.

BOB ALLEN: The winners won and the losers lost, and that was all there was to it.

KESTENBAUM: Were the Luddites right then?

ALLEN: Well, it was certainly, I think, in their interest to wreck machines. They were acting rationally, and I think to say that they were irrational and opponents of progress is a big mistake.

KESTENBAUM: We're living now in a second machine age. It's computers and software this time, not weaving machines, but some of the same things are happening. People talk about the rise of the 1 percent, about how income for ordinary people is stagnant. That is partly due to technology.

GOLDSTEIN: The traditional economic response is these problems are temporary. Technology makes everybody better off in the long run. But one of the things the Luddites have to teach us is the long run can be really, really long. Jacob Goldstein.

KESTENBAUM: David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

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