What Effect Did the Steam Engine Have on Skilled Workers?


Quick Answer

The steam engine led to thousands of skilled artisans losing their livelihoods. It fueled dozens of industrial innovations that inexpensively replaced the work of skilled artisans with unskilled labor and highly efficient machines. Ultimately, this led to the development of trade unions.

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Full Answer

In the late 18th century, British manufacturers began to move to steam-engine powered factories that ran large mills, especially for the production of cloth goods. They circumvented the ancient apprenticeship program, putting unskilled labor, women and children to work on the factory looms for low wages. Thousands of skilled laborers who had produced stockings, woolen cloth, cotton cloth and thread in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire were suddenly out of work. They protested, taking their grievance to Parliament and claiming several old laws on the books regarding the enforcement of apprenticeship and the use of "gig mills" were being broken by the mill owners. However, in 1809, Parliament responded by repealing all those laws on the grounds that they were now obsolete.

A group of unemployed artisans called the Luddites appeared in about 1811, rioting and "frame-breaking," or going into factories to break the wide weaving frames powered by steam engines. When this had no noticeable effect, they started issuing death threats and attacking mill owners and magistrates. The British government sent in army troops to quell riots that broke out in several parts of the country, then arrested and tried Luddites and alleged Luddites in mass trials. The harsh penalties meted out, including transportation and hanging, quelled further rebellion.

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