by Eithne Dodd
The troops could not control the men gathered in Nottingham’s marketplace. The men were framework knitters, angered at the introduction of wide frames three decades earlier. They began to riot and at Arnold, a town north-east of Nottingham, 63 framework knitters were destroyed.
These were the original “Luddites”, so called because of ‘King Ludd’ a mythical figure who lived in Sherwood Forest and was said to led the riots.
They were expert craftspeople in textiles who were being replaced by machines, without appropriate compensation. Between 1811 and 1813, these protestors became internationally famous.
The workers wanted more work and better wages. These workers trained for years in their craft only to be told that a machine could do it faster and with less mistakes.
Before we can ask “what will we do when robots replace us?” we need to know how we will live once we have been replaced.
If, the Varian Rule applies, which suggests that we can predict the future by looking at what rich people have today; and positing that the middle class will have an equivalent in ten years and the working class will have it in 20 years; and automation generates enough economic growth, we can all live in comparative luxury.
Or, automation could leave us destitute without a purpose and without the means to better ourselves.
Seeing the increased use of automated looms and knitting frames, which was bringing more money to their employers while they saw themselves entering poverty, the Luddites asked for more money.
Luddites were not opposed to the new technology being introduced into factories. Many of them could use the machines that were making their years of artisan practice obsolete. What they were – was poor. And their calls for higher wages had gone unanswered for years.
After their calls for government aid were ignored, they decided to take action. Arnold was the first to have its textile machinery broken by the luddites but the violence only grew from there.
Other angry workers smashing their textile machinery and similar attacks began to occur in other towns of England. Eventually, a 70-mile stretch of Northern England had seen machinery destroyed.
Fearing a national uprising, the government lent aid to the factories, positioning soldiers outside to protect machinery. The violence only escalated. Factories were burned, machines were destroyed, and gunfire was exchanged between the Luddites and soldiers. Machine breaking became a capital offence. Some of the leaders were hanged.
The rebellion ended when many of the Luddites were rounded up and sent to Australia.
Later in the 1980s, ‘luddite’ became a synonym for ‘technophobe’ but they were really protesting against uncompensated eroding of their livelihoods, not against technological progress.
The automation in today’s world is making certain people very rich while having the potential to cause huge job losses and pay cuts. This time, there is no far-off colony to export former workers to.