The original Luddites claimed to be led by one "King Ludd" (also known as "General Ludd" or "Captain Ludd") whose signature appears on a "workers' manifesto" of the time. King Ludd was based on the earlier Ned Ludd, who some believed to have destroyed two large stocking frames in the village of Anstey, Leicestershire in 1779. At that time in England, machine breaking could lead to heavy penalties or even execution, which might have led some to use fictitious names for protection.
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 suppressed the movement. The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding the industrial towns, practising drills and maneuvers, 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 hiding places.
"Machine breaking" (industrial sabotage) was subsequently made a capital crime by the Frame Breaking Act– legislation which was opposed by Lord Byron, one of the few prominent defenders of the Luddites– 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, led by George Mellor, ambushed and assassinated a mill-owner (William Horsfall from Ottiwells Mill in Marsden) at Crosland Moor, Huddersfield, Mellor firing the shot to the groin which would, soon enough, prove fatal. Horsfall had remarked previously that he would "Ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood". The Luddites responsible were hanged in York, and shortly thereafter "Luddism" began to wane.
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.
Many of the ideas that were encompassed within the Luddite Movement have been studied and evaluated in modern economics literature. The concept of "Skill Biased Technological Change" (SBTC) posits that technology contributes to the de-skilling of routine, manual tasks.
The term "Luddite fallacy" has become a concept in neoclassical economics reflecting the belief that labour-saving technologies (i.e., technologies that increase output-per-worker) increase unemployment by reducing demand for labour. This argument is fallacious because–instead of seeking to keep production constant by employing a smaller, more productive workforce–employers increase production while keeping workforce size constant.
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 against which the Luddites were protesting. Thompson cites the many historical accounts of Luddite raids on workshops where some frames were smashed whilst others (whose owners were obeying the old economic practice and not trying to cut prices) were left untouched. This would clearly distinguish the Luddites from someone who was today called a luddite; whereas today a luddite would reject new technology because it is new, the Luddites were acting from a sense of self-preservation rather than merely fear of change.
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