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February 27, 1812 – Rage Against the Machines

Posted February 27, 2009 12:01 AM by Steve Melito

On this day in engineering history, Britain's House of Lords ignored a plea to spare the lives of the Luddites, textile artisans who destroyed mechanized looms to protest a loss of work and preserve their livelihoods. The Luddites' defender, Lord George Gordon Byron, was a poet and purveyor of Romanticism, an artistic and intellectual movement that railed against the scientific rationalization of nature. Romanticism bloomed during Great Britain's Industrial Revolution, a time of technological change when machine-based manufacturing replaced manual labor.

The Luddites

The Luddites were a group of craft workers who feared that industrialization would doom their manual trades. The movement took its name from Ned Ludd, a folkloric figure who had smashed several knitting machines during the 1770s. In 1811, Ludd's disciples sent letters to factory owners near Nottingham and called upon the industrialists to forsake textile machinery. The owners installed the new equipment, however. Salaries were cut and jobs were lost. The Luddite movement then spread across Britain, becoming violent at times. Moving under dark of night, the angry artisans broke into locked factories to smash the new machines.

Wheat Prices and Frame Breaking

During the winter of 1812, wheat prices soared. Unemployed weavers and croppers grew desperate – and increasingly violent. In one three-week period, the Luddites destroyed more than 200 stocking frames across northern England. In response, the government of Prime Minister Spencer Perceval asked Parliament to make "machine-breaking" a capital offense. Lord Byron opposed Perceval's efforts in the House of Lords, explaining that the Luddites' recent acts of violence were the product of "circumstances of the most unparalleled distress." This "once honest and industrious body of the people," Byron claimed, had become "miserable men" driven by "nothing but absolute want".

Ultimately, Prime Minister Perceval prevailed. The Frame Breaking Act of 1812 made it a capital offense for anyone convicted of "machine breaking", the willful destruction of mechanized looms or cloth-finishing machinery. The British government also ordered 12,000 troops into regions where the Luddites had been the most destructive. Nevertheless, the displaced workers continued their nighttime campaigns, even burning down the home of a factory owner.

The Death of a Movement

In the summer of 1812, eight Luddites in Lancashire were sentenced to death and 13 sent to the penal colony of Australia for attacks on cotton mills. Another fifteen were executed at York. Casualties of the Luddite movement's demise included Abraham Charlston, a 12-year old boy.

As Lord Byron once wrote (though not in reference to the Luddites), "Who tracks the steps of glory to the grave?"

Resources:

http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/news/2008/02/dayintech_0227

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gordon_Byron,_6th_Baron_Byron

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanticism

http://everything2.com/node/600390

http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/l/lord_byron.html

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#1

Re: February 27, 1812 – Rage Against the Machines

02/27/2009 3:15 AM

Government siding with the wealthy...and crapping on the workers.
Not much changes does it?

Of ourse if you are at the top and lose 24Billion £ then you get a nice fat pension, which could probably pay the wages for 6 front line staff.

Del

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Guru
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Re: February 27, 1812 – Rage Against the Machines

02/27/2009 10:13 AM

Good to hear from you, Del. What struck me as I researched this piece was how much greater value was placed on property than human life. The more cynical among us might say "So? That's nothing new", but it's not as if the Luddites were trying to overthrow the state.

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#3

Re: February 27, 1812 – Rage Against the Machines

02/28/2009 11:03 AM

It seems that the Machine-breaking law hasn't yet been repealed!

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