Machine Breaking

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Machine breaking has a long, sporadic history in Europe stretching back to the middle ages, but as a modern form of protest against technological innovation, it dates essentially to the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Sir John Kay's flying shuttle, a device by which a weaver could send the yarn through the web of a loom without assistance, met with violent resistance on its appearance in England in the 1760s, as did James Hargreaves's spinning jenny, a portentous invention that made it possible to turn up to a hundred spindles with the same single wheel that had traditionally turned one. Custom and (in some cases) statute expressly forbade such innovations, but increasingly, as the mercantile state gave way to the liberal state in the age of Adam Smith (1723–1790), custom and statute both yielded to the march of progress. In 1780, for instance, four years after the publication of Wealth of Nations, the British Parliament refused a petition asking for a ban on cotton spinning machinery. Five years later, with the successful application of steam power to spinning and the advent of the power loom, cotton textiles became the world's first factory-based industry, and incidents of machine breaking naturally quickened. Wool, England's traditional textile fiber, was less amenable than cotton to industrial production, but here too technological innovation met with furious resistance, notably in Wiltshire, where the appearance of the gig mill—a machine for raising the nap of the cloth preparatory to shearing—provoked destructive riots in 1802.

By far the most famous early episode of machine breaking, however, was the so-called Luddite Rebellion. Starting in the hosiery districts of Nottinghamshire, and then moving north to the Pennine valleys of Yorkshire and Lancashire, loosely organized groups of anonymous workmen, acting on the mythic authority of one Ned (variously "King" or "General") Ludd, demolished thousands of stocking-frames, power looms, gig mills, and the like, in 1811 and 1812. The Luddites made a tremendous impression on their contemporaries (including Lord Byron, who famously defended them in his maiden speech to the House of Lords, and Charlotte Brontë, who made a Luddite riot the central incident of her novel Shirley), and historians continue to argue over their social and political significance. Were they, as some contend, simple rioters, lashing out randomly and incoherently at industrial forces beyond their control? Or were they, as others contend, a well-organized and disciplined "army of redressers" acting according to the traditional logic of the moral economy? Did they feel a visceral aversion to machinery per se? Or did they mean only to regulate and control the terms of its use? Were they purely social rebels? Or did their actions express a wider, democratic yearning? Existing evidence points in all of these directions and more. Whatever else one might claim for them, the Luddites certainly conferred an idea and a word on the language. They were, in effect if not in fact, the original machine-breakers, and to this day, those skeptical of the benefits of industrial technology describe themselves proudly as "Luddites."

Across the English Channel in France, machine breaking was never as deliberate or extensive as in Great Britain, the "first industrial nation," but it was not unknown. A few of the Enlightenment philosophes—Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Montesquieu (1689–1755) especially—had worried about the degrading effects of mechanization on the lives of workers, and with the French Revolution, their misgivings assumed concrete form. The cahiers de doléances (lists of public grievances drawn up for the Estates General in the spring of 1789) of the Rouen district are full of denunciations of the new spinning technology, all of it imported from Great Britain. "Let us forget the very name of these spinning machines which have stolen the bread from innumerable poor citizens who have nothing but cotton spinning as their sole resource," read Article 7 of the cahier of Saint-Jean-sur-Cailly, for instance (Reddy, p. 58). Machine breaking featured far less than grain rioting in the French Revolution, but on 14 July 1789, even as the crowds of Paris stormed the Bastille, workers in Rouen were demolishing spinning machines in the cotton factory of MM. Debourge and Callonne. Similar episodes took place over the next few years among the carders of Lille, the spinners of Troyes, and the cutlery-workers of Saint-Étienne, but historians impute them more to the general revolutionary fever than to a particular hostility to machines. The Napoleonic period saw the rapid extension of the factory system in France and, with it, machine-breaking riots in Sedan, Vienne, and Limoux. But it was with the Restoration, and the arrival of machinery in the woolen centers of the south, that French Luddism came of age. Anonymous shearmen, often acting in connivance with small, sympathetic masters and shop owners, destroyed shearing machines in Vienne and Carcassone in 1819 and in Lodève in 1821. Thereafter, as the French textile industry expanded and workers found ready employment in spite of the new machines, the hostility faded. Machine breaking recurred in Paris and other northern centers in the early years of the July Monarchy, but by then it reflected not hostility to the machine as such but a deeper demand for fundamental changes in the nature and organization of labor.

The year 1830 saw a dramatic recurrence of machine breaking in England, this time, unusually, in the agricultural counties of the south and east. Here the hated object was the thresher, a machine for separating the grain from the chaff that was thought to deprive agricultural laborers of much-needed winter work. Starting in east Kent in August 1830, rioters acting in the name, this time, of the mythical Captain Swing, combined demands for higher wages and tithe reductions with destructive attacks on threshers. More than 1,400 incidents have been attributed to the "Swing Riots," in the repressive wake of which nineteen people were executed, 481 transported, and more than 700 imprisoned. Machine breaking returned to the north of England in the 1840s, with the first widespread adoption of the power loom. Thereafter, as the "hungry forties" gave way to the prosperous 1850s, English workers increasingly accepted the inevitability of the machine and turned their attention, by way of trade unionism, to securing for themselves a greater share of the profits it generated.

Though industrialization came relatively late to central and eastern Europe, machine breaking appeared there as early as March 1819, when a group of 150 relatively comfortable but precariously positioned domestic textile workers (possibly influenced, in this case, by news of recent "Luddite" riots in southern France) destroyed spinning machines in the Moravian town of Brno. Linen workers in the Ruhr Valley towns of Krefeld and Aachen rioted in 1828 and 1830, on both occasions unremarkably provoked by the introduction of power looms and the increasing employment of female and unskilled labor. The 1844 revolt of the weavers of Silesia against the power loom would later be immortalized by Gerhart Hauptmann in his play of 1892, The Weavers, and it seems to have inspired within a few days a most impressive series of deliberate and concerted attacks on machinery at six different cloth printing factories in and around Prague over a period of a week in mid-June 1844. In each case in Prague, the targeted factory owner was Jewish, and historical commentators on the Prager Maschinensturm have consistently noted an anti-Semitic tinge to the proceedings. For the most part, however, machine breaking in Germany and the Austrian Empire reflected the same standard fearfulness in the face of technological change that it did in Great Britain and France. Luddism everywhere was the response of skilled workers and artisans to something new that threatened their livelihood, their independence, and their proudly held standard of craft production.

The 1848 Revolution in Germany brought with it widespread machine breaking, most notably among the steel and cutlery workers of Solingen. Thereafter, as revolutionary passions cooled and workers in Germany, like those in Great Britain before them, adapted to the new technological dispensation, machine breaking became a thing of the past. Industrial sabotage in the more limited sense of slowing, stopping, or disabling machines remained a problem, from the employer's point of view, right through the nineteenth century, especially in syndicalist France (where the very term saboteur derives). And sporadically across the less-industrialized parts of Europe, classic machine breaking recurred, as in the famous case of the carpet weavers of Anatolia in 1908. But in the main, it is a feature of early nineteenth-century European history, a dramatic social aspect of Europe's painful transition to the industrial age.

See alsoCaptain Swing; Industrial Revolution, First; Luddism.


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Reddy, William M. The Rise of Market Culture: The Textile Trade and French Society, 1750–1900. Cambridge, U.K., 1984.

Stewart Weaver