Luddites: They lost war against machines

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Posted: Friday, January 25, 2013 12:00 am

WASHINGTON (AP) — Their name is synonymous with futile attempts to roll back technology — and with fuddy-duddies who can't figure out how to use the iPhone.

The Luddites were British textile artisans who 200 years ago smashed the mechanized looms they thought threatened their jobs.

They weren't the first to attack machines. And their grievances weren't even with the looms themselves; they were enraged at the business owners who hired unskilled laborers to use the machines and turned out shoddy products that ruined the artisans' reputation for quality.

Their movement began in economic misery. Britain's long war with Napoleon had taken a toll. The economy was squeezed by a French blockade that cut exports and sent food prices soaring. Their livelihoods threatened by low-wage labor, the artisans began demonstrating around Nottingham around 1811.

The protests — and the machine-busting — spread across a swath of central England.

An outraged Parliament passed a law imposing the death penalty on machine wreckers — a draconian move opposed by the poet Lord Byron, who said the Luddites deserved pity, not punishment.

The government sent soldiers to restore order. At one point, the late historian Eric Hobsbawm has written, Britain had more troops deployed against the Luddites than they had fighting Napoleon in Spain and Portugal.

Several Luddites were killed in clashes with troops. Others were hanged. By the end of 1814, the Luddite protests were over. The Industrial Revolution rolled on, replacing artisans with factory workers

But the Luddites had made an impression. They had a talent for showmanship. They wrote mischievous, official-sounding decrees addressed from Sherwood Forest, an attempt to claim the legacy of Robin Hood. They marched through the streets dressed as women.

The Luddite label has been applied to everyone from anti-technology extremists — such as the “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski — to those who merely struggle with technology or don't want to bother with it.

Sometimes the Luddite label serves as an all-purpose label for someone who's considered not with the times. When University of Chicago economist Raghuram Rajan raised questions about the stability of the world financial system in 2005, for instance, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers dismissed his argument as “slightly Luddite.”

Three years later, Lehman Bros. collapsed and the global economy toppled into the deepest recession since the 1930s.

In this case, at least, the Luddite was right.

A history lesson

NEW YORK (AP) — To workers being pushed out of jobs by today's technology, history has a message: You're not the first.

From textile machines to the horseless carriage to email, technology has upended industries and wiped out jobs for centuries. It also has created millions of jobs, though usually not for the people who lost them.

A look at breakthroughs that made goods more affordable, lives more comfortable — and jobs more precarious:

THE FIRST INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: Mid-18th century and the next 100 years.

» New mechanical devices that allowed one man to do the work of several flooded the market with products. Steam freed the new machines from the limits of man's muscle and made them run faster. Machines produced so much, so fast and so cheaply, more people could afford to buy textiles, as a key example. Demand soared and so did jobs manning the machines and doing other work.

» In America in 1793, Eli Whitney freed slaves from picking sticky seeds from cotton bolls by inventing a cotton gin that did that automatically. It led to widespread cotton planting of cotton and more work for slaves. Whitney also is credited with inventing interchangeable parts. A series of inventions made farming more efficient, draining people from farms. In 1800, two-thirds of Americans worked on farms; 2 percent do today.

THE SECOND INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: Mid-19th century to the early 20th century

» An age of steel and electric power, expanding railroads and the automobile that started in 1856 when an Englishman discovered a cheap, fast way to make steel. In quick succession came a string of breakthroughs — coast-to-coast telegraph lines, the automobile, the Wright brothers' airplane, an automatic typesetting machine for printing and a tractor propelled by an internal combustion engine instead of pulled by horses.

» Railroad companies started using steel for their rails instead of wrought iron, which bent easily and needed to be replaced often. Trains could carry heavier loads, so businesses could send more products to distant markets. Sales increased, and so did jobs. Henry Ford's moving assembly line made cars faster and cheaper; prices plummeted and demand soared, creating new kinds of jobs in a new industry, helping to wipe out 100,000 jobs for carriage and harness makers.

THE INFORMATION AGE: Early 20th Century until now

» The inventor's focus shifted from building things to manipulating information. The tools of this new period help people gather and analyze data and communicate faster, cheaper, better.

» No invention is commonly accepted as first of the age, but one contender is the first digital computer in 1937, created by George Stibitz of Bell Labs, the former research arm of AT&T. Stibitz seized the idea of using the open and closed positions of metallic devices when electricity runs through them to do simple math. In 1947, a team at Bell Labs discovered how to amplify and switch electronic signals using semiconductor material, crammed onto a small chip a decade later. In 1971, the first email was sent by a Defense Department computer engineer. In 1981, the National Science Foundation set up a network linking university computers, and the Internet was born.

» Motorola in 1983 introduced the first portable cellphone, the 2-pound DynaTac 8000x and, in 1994, BellSouth sold its first Simon, the start of a stream of smartphones from which you can access virtually any information on the run, including a phone number. That helps explain why there were just 36,000 U.S. operators in 2010, down nearly two-thirds in 10 years. A job that rose in the same period: software engineer. They numbered 1.03 million in 2010, up nearly 40 percent.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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