Lessons from the Luddites

It turns out there wasn’t anyone named Ludd behind the British Luddite rebellion in the early 1800s. And despite their reputation, the original Luddites didn’t fear technology or even really oppose it.

They just wanted a share of the profits generated by the productivity improvements technology provided.

This comes from the Smithsonian’s fascinating article When Robots Take All of Our Jobs, Remember the Luddites.

The Luddites were “croppers”, workers who trimmed the rough surface off of large sheets of woven wool fabric, making it smooth to the touch. The wool would then be turned in stockings, which were commonly worn instead of pants at that time in England.

Being a cropper was a really good job. Key quote from the article:

“They were well-off — their pay was three times that of stocking-makers … These workers had great control over when and how they worked — and plenty of leisure. “The year was chequered with holidays, wakes, and fairs; it was not one dull round of labor,” as the stocking-maker William Gardiner noted gaily at the time. Indeed, some “seldom worked more than three days a week.” Not only was the weekend a holiday, but they took Monday off too, celebrating it as a drunken “St. Monday.””

Unfortunately for the croppers, fashions changed and men started wearing pants instead of stockings. The Napoleonic wars of the time also disrupted trade and drove up costs.

In response to these trends, textile factory owners moved to cut their expenses through automation.

This cut the croppers work and wages and forced many into factory jobs. They weren’t happy:

The workers were livid. Factory work was miserable, with brutal 14-hour days that left workers — as one doctor noted — “stunted, enfeebled, and depraved.” … Poverty rose as wages plummeted.

The workers tried bargaining and said they weren’t opposed to the use of machinery. But they wanted the profits from the improvements in productivity shared with the workers and not just kept by the factory owners and merchants.

Interesting quote on some of things the workers suggested:

The croppers suggested taxing cloth to make a fund for those unemployed by machines. Others argued that industrialists should introduce machinery more gradually, to allow workers more time to adapt to new trades.

Sounds pretty familiar.

When their suggestions that owners earn only a “fair profit” and share with the workers were rejected, the croppers turned to the destruction of the machines that were replacing them.

This ended badly for the Luddites.

Over the next year and a half 24 Luddites were hung, 24 sent to prison and 51 shipped off to Australia. This effectively ended the Luddite rebellion.

As for the name Luddite:

An actual person Ludd did not exist; probably the name was inspired by the mythic tale of “Ned Ludd,” an apprentice who was beaten by his master and retaliated by destroying his frame … Ludd was, in essence, a useful meme — one the Luddites carefully cultivated, like modern activists posting images to Twitter and Tumblr.

Just as there was no Ludd, it’s likely Mark Twain never said “History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes”.

But had he said it and were he still around, he’d likely think the Luddite experience is rhyming with what’s happening today.