This English historical movement has to be seen in its context of the harsh economic climate due to the Napoleonic Wars, and the degrading working conditions in the new textile factories; but since then, the term Luddite has been used derisively to describe anyone opposed to technological progress and technological change.
The Luddite movement, which began in 1811, took its name from the fictive Ned Ludd. For a short time the movement was so strong that it clashed in battles with the British Army. Measures taken by the government included a mass trial at York in 1812 that resulted in many executions and penal transportation.
The principal objection of the Luddites was the introduction of new wide-framed automated looms that could be operated by cheap, relatively unskilled labour, resulting in the loss of jobs for many skilled textile workers.
Research by historian Kevin Binfield is particularly useful in placing the Luddite movement in historical context—as organised action by stockingers had occurred at various times since 1675, and the present action had to be seen in the context of the hardships suffered by the working class during the Napoleonic Wars.
The movement began in Nottingham in 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England in 1811 and 1812. Many wool and cotton mills were destroyed until the British government harshly suppressed the movement. The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding the industrial towns, practising drills and manoeuvres and often enjoyed local support. The main areas of the disturbances were Nottinghamshire in November 1811, followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire in early 1812 and Lancashire from March 1813. Battles between Luddites and the military occurred at Burton's Mill in Middleton, and at Westhoughton Mill, both in Lancashire. It was rumoured at the time that agents provocateurs employed by the magistrates were involved in provoking the attacks. Magistrates and food merchants were also objects of death threats and attacks by the anonymous King Ludd and his supporters. Some industrialists even had secret chambers constructed in their buildings, which may have been used as a hiding place.
"Machine breaking" (industrial sabotage) was subsequently made a capital crime by the Frame Breaking Act (Lord Byron, one of the few prominent defenders of the Luddites, famously spoke out against this legislation), and 17 men were executed after an 1813 trial in York. Many others were transported as prisoners to Australia. At one time, there were more British troops fighting the Luddites than Napoleon I on the Iberian Peninsula. Three Luddites ambushed and murdered a mill-owner (William Horsfall from Ottiwells Mill in Marsden) at Crosland Moor, Huddersfield; the Luddites responsible were hanged in York, and shortly thereafter 'Luddism' waned.
However, the movement can also be seen as part of a rising tide of English working-class discontent in the early 19th century (see also, for example, the Pentrich Rising of 1817, which was a general uprising, but led by an unemployed Nottingham stockinger, and probable ex-Luddite, Jeremiah Brandreth). An agricultural variant of Luddism, centering on the breaking of threshing machines, was crucial to the widespread Swing Riots of 1830 in southern and eastern England.
In recent years, the terms Luddism and Luddite or Neo-Luddism and Neo-Luddite have become synonymous with anyone who opposes the advance of technology due to the cultural and socioeconomic changes that are associated with it.
In his work on English history, The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson presented an alternative view of Luddite history. He argues that Luddites were not opposed to new technology in itself, but rather to the abolition of set prices and therefore also to the introduction of the free market.
Thompson argues that it was the newly-introduced economic system that the Luddites were protesting. For example, the Luddite song, "General Ludd's Triumph":